Steven Feld: Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana, Book

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by Steven Feld
Duke University Press, March 2012
2013 Elliot P. Skinner Book Prize, Association for Africanist Anthropology

Description from the Duke University Press website

In this remarkable book, Steven Feld, pioneer of the anthropology of sound, listens to the vernacular cosmopolitanism of jazz players in Ghana. Some have traveled widely, played with American jazz greats, and blended the innovations of John Coltrane with local instruments and worldviews. Combining memoir, biography, ethnography, and history, Feld conveys a diasporic intimacy and dialogue that contests American nationalist and Afrocentric narratives of jazz history. His stories of Accra's jazz cosmopolitanism feature Ghanaba/Guy Warren (1923–2008), the eccentric drummer who befriended the likes of Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Thelonious Monk in the United States in the 1950s, only to return, embittered, to Ghana, where he became the country's leading experimentalist. Others whose stories figure prominently are Nii Noi Nortey, who fuses the legacies of the black avant-gardes of the 1960s and 1970s with pan-African philosophy in sculptural shrines to Coltrane and musical improvisations inspired by his work; the percussionist Nii Otoo Annan, a traditional master inspired by Coltrane's drummers Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali; and a union of Accra truck and minibus drivers whose squeeze-bulb honk-horn music for drivers' funerals recalls the jazz funerals of New Orleans. Feld describes these artists' cosmopolitan outlook as an "acoustemology," a way of knowing the world through sound.

“How to evoke the brilliant insight and empathy of Steven Feld’s acoustemological memoir of music and musicians in Accra? To start, imagine E.T. Mensah, Shirley Temple, John Coltrane, and Ludwig van Beethoven riding (quasi-legally) in the back of a vividly motto-festooned Ghanaian trotro truck, cool-running a memory drenched, complexly overlapping soundscape of highlife evergreens, Afriphonic jazz hollers, hallelujah choruses, ratcheting sewer toads, and honking India rubber bulb horns. Centered on the voices, stories, and ambitions of a compelling cast of characters—Ghanaian musicians whose diversely linked experiences chart the layered, contradictory flows and deep reefs of globalization—Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra is a fundamental and stimulating contribution to the literature on musical cosmopolitanism and the study of contemporary urban culture in Africa.”—Christopher Waterman, Dean, UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture

"Steven Feld has written an astonishing book: at once a sweetly told adventure story, biographies of some very important but virtually unknown African musicians, a shrewd look at the world we live in and think we know, and hidden within it all, a sly critique of the history of jazz."—John F. Szwed, Director, Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University

 From Reviews

“The chapters in which Feld listens and retells the stories of these mercurial musicians are compelling, and throw up original and profound material. . . . Feld is brilliant at articulating the multiple overlapping narratives and experiences that both obfuscate and animate diasporic dialogues, and in that process his book attains its own world-historical significance.

—Tony Herrington, The Wire

 “A successful fusion of anthropology and aesthetics that illuminates the musical and cultural links—and differences—between African and American jazz, this is also a fascinating memoir of one person’s attempt to understand the urban culture of Ghana in an age of globalization.”

Publishers Weekly

 “What I loved most about Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra is that Feld never objectifies the people he’s describing. Feld’s love for jazz music and respect for the musicians he works with really comes through, and his exploration of the meanings of cosmopolitanism, and how it actually plays out in different forms in the real world, makes for a fascinating and thought-provoking conclusion. And the many included photographs just bring Accra and its musical citizens even more to life.”

—Eva Kay, A Striped Armchair blog

 “[A] vital statement about the infinitely nuanced nature of cultural exchange between Africa and America, and how our fullest understanding of jazz history might be furthered by enquiries like this.”

—Kevin Le Gendre, Jazzwise

 “This fascinating book opens up jazz from the African perspective. Whether he’s discussing with Nortey the Africanization of his saxophone and his absolute dedication to the music of John Coltrane or explaining Ghanaba’s musical relationship with Max Roach, Feld brings a full picture to the broadening cultural aspects of Africans playing their own type of jazz.”

—Jon Ross, Downbeat

 “Feld offers an engaging, well-written, insightful work that is both a study of Ghana's contemporary music scene (particularly avant-garde jazz) and a
memoir of his experiences as an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist. . . . The numerous photos are captivating and help bring the stories to life. Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals; general readers.”—D. J. Schmalenberger, Choice

 “Feld’s new book is a celebration of storytelling as ethnographic form and a compelling portrait of cosmopolitanism as situated musical experience.”

—Max Ritts, Society and Space (Environment and Planning D)

 “Feld reveals the high degree of cosmopolitanism in jazz-pop related musics and the huge role that race and class play in constraining the players. Deciphering the intertextuality of African American life and music requires an expert like Steven Feld. He has done a masterful job.”

—Philip K. Bock, Journal of Anthropological Research

 “With rich and diverse examples, Feld demonstrates the pervasiveness of cosmopolitan outlooks among jazz musicians in Accra, whether mobile or immobile, socially powerful or powerless, rich or poor…Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra is an important theoretical intervention in ‘cosmopolitanism from below’ and a powerful narrative about jazz as an African diasporic art form from the standpoint of musicians in Accra.”

—Stephen Hager, Notes

“In addition to his effective usage of the storytelling mode, Feld provides an exemplary illustration of the seamless integration of multiple roles as a documentary filmmaker, musician, anthropologist, historian, and tour promoter. . . . Feld realizes that not all Ghanaians would view these musicians as cosmopolitans, but that fact seems to actually reinforce his discussion of the discourse on cosmopolitanism and its relationship to race, class, and other structures of power. Indeed, he opens many doors for his readers and tells us stories of why these types of music making are important beyond Ghana. He leads us to a more refined understanding of cosmopolitanism, not to provide a series of answers, but to provoke in each of us more thoughtful questions about our music, our research, and ourselves.”

—Dave Wilson, Ethnomusicology Review

 “Jazz Cosmopolitanism is a lively and important book, one that uses the vehicles of dialogue and sound to unearth the complex cultural and political dynamics that connect a group of urban Africans to the diaspora and wider world. It is a fun, invigorating, and worthwhile read. . . .that continues to resonate when finally put down. I highly recommend picking it up.”

—Nate Plageman, Journal of African History

 “This is a very complex and multi-layered text, and at the same time a smooth-flowing reading, for the way it mixes storytelling and dialogue, music-like composition and a multi-sited perspective.“

—Lorenzo Ferrarini, Visual Ethnography

“Feld’s brilliant work should have a broad impact and appeal, offering significant contributions and interventions to interdisciplinary discourses on jazz, Ghananain music, cosmopolitanism, as well as (urban) Africa and its diaspora.”

-Paul Schauert, African Music

“This purportedly scholarly work is in fact a thoroughly humane and endearing narrative account of Feld’s attempt in Ghana, encumbered by the title “Prof,” recording and photographic equipment, a car, and many of the resources one expects from a citizen of the wealthiest nation on earth, to try and engage with and understand Accra’s musical landscape and especially those aspects of it which relate to jazz. It’s a joy to read and includes priceless accounts ...”

Ben Robertson,

 "Clearly, the author's intention with this book is not to make a mere musical or empirical analysis. Rather, his intention lies in the desire to present portraits of people who in flesh and blood are creative, talented, and have a sense of humor…After reading the book I am left with the impression of a pleasant experience that includes humorous, funny dialogues, and tall, almost fantastic, tales. But the book's greatest achievement is not just this capacity to entertain and amuse, but also to show fundamental aspects of jazz from perspectives rarely imagined, much less investigated. Feld connects his narratives with contemporary theories of post-modernism, hybridization, migration, performance and embodiment. The work is of great value, not only for jazz fans, but also for all ethnomusicologists, whether their studies are urban or rural, exotic or 'at home'."

Bernd Brabec de Mori, El Oído Pensante

Fortunately, Feld, a musician as well as an anthropologist, spends most of his book on great ethnography. We do get to know the musicians well; along with the CDs there are seventy-eight photos to peruse.  I strongly recommend this book. African jazz is but one part of the world of jazz, but it is a very important part. As the musicians who speak in the book know, jazz is always changing around its African core. It was the first modern fusion music and it still incorporates material from all over the world. The best musicians have “big ears,” and it is only right that African jazz bands get their proper due. Let their wonderful music speak for them, as the powerful CDs with this book demonstrate. 

-Frank A. Salamone, African Studies Review

“What makes this book so captivating, so consequential, is not simply the colorful tales of cosmo-politics, but more precisely Feld’s distinctive approach to music writing, an interpretive strategy grounded in the teachings of linguisticanthropology as it is resonant with the conversations informing contemporary cultural theory…There is, really, nothing quite like it, and in its originality Jazz Cosmopolitanism stands as a new model for jazz writing as it also provides a powerful critique of US-based jazz studies… Feld’s book suggests, indeed, a new kind of ethnographically centered, transnational jazz studies, one that is deeply attentive to the consequences of nation, race, empire, and colonialism, for these forces continue to inhabit jazz’s resonances and interpretations far and wide. The consequence of Feld’s book, then, is for the sum of us: Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra will not only become one of the most important studies in jazz scholarship; it will also provide a provocative indication of where and how culturally oriented music studies might develop. 

—Ronald Radano, Journal of Popular Music Studies

“…a delightful excursion into the “acoustemological” world of contemporary Accra…The protagonists of this extraordinary adventure in ethnomusicology…are an amazing bunch…By re-introducing these largely forgotten Ghanaian jazz musicians to the world, Feld links them to a web of contingencies and complexities which emphasize their importance on a global scale…Feld’s work shows us that a better world is possible, and that the cosmopolitanism that matters always comes ‘from below.’” 

-Tony Mitchell, Journal of World Popular Music

“Scholars familiar with most of Steven Feld’s writings will no doubt be drawn quickly to the narratives assembled in this latest work.…the complex interplay of politics of race, ethnicity, identity and belonging, ownership, and glocal and diasporic currents in and out of Ghana are carefully documented…Jazz Cosmopolitanism is a significant text that bestrides the disciplines with clear intersubjectivities and reflexivities beyond ‘acoustemologies.’ Many readers will certainly applaud Feld’s meticulous archival and secondary sources that enrich his historical and contextual notes…Listeners should be sure not to miss the bufology (frogs) track from the accompanying audio.” 

-Daniel Avorgbedor, American Anthropologist

“…a very warm and intimate study. The reader will be invited to listen to the people involved. Hearing their voices is important, a point Feld makes very clear by writing in their own style of talking…An integral part of the way he delivers his argument is by audio and video. The Accra book is published with a companion CD and DVD of which the latter includes three one-hour documentary films. Feld is carrying out his research in an academically hybrid environment. This might concern the more textually oriented academic but it is more than evident that the audio and visual documents of the subjects in hand are indispensable…”

- Meri Kytö, Popular Music


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