Beatriz Leal Riesco is a PhD candidate at the University of Salamanca in Spain. In addition to organizing numerous conferences on contemporary Danish and Czech cinematography, she has published and lectured widely on such themes as the concept of authorship and theatricality and language hybridization in the films of Mario Martone. Her current research focuses on present-day West African francophone cinema and the role of music and dance in film.
Musicology in African Cinema
By Beatriz Leal Riesco
A scene from Abderrahmane Sissako' classic film La Vie sur Terre
The analysis of the complex role of music in film is generally underrated or forgotten by critics, the majority of whom remain prostrate before the dictatorship of the image. Yet as a manifestation of culture, music has a privileged position with respect to the study of representations of identity and ideology; moreover, in its subversive and dialogic aspects, it often reveals significant directorial decisions related to dynamics of power and exclusion.
Numerous directors have understood the importance of music with respect to certain programmatic ends over the five decades of African cinema: at an early point, directors such as Ousmane Sembene and Djibril Diop Mambety devoted themselves to constructing an image of their newly created nations. Their pioneering work dealt with the necessity of recovering a historical memory intentionally obscured by imperialism and of developing alternatives to colonial and neocolonial dogmas.
They understood the importance of elaborating a body of specifically African theory related to social and cultural praxes in their respective cultures. In this environment, the role of cinema was crucial. This new art form, fusing the potency of the audio-visual idiom and the complex legacy of imperialism, came to be seen as a privileged means of struggle against the injustices in these directors’ daily lives.
In the works of both Abderrahmane Sissako and Moussa Sené Absa—not to mention the musicals of Flora Gomes, Joseph Gaï Ramaka and Mark Dornford-May—music plays an essential role in understanding of the meaning of the directorial process.
Since the early days of African cinema, music has formed part of a (self) conscious discourse concerning the problematic realities of Africa. Its use has rarely been gratuitous and goes far beyond the traditional—and much less experimental. In African cinema, music is stressed in terms of its cultural, poetic, and artistic functions in relation to oral tradition; it refers to such figures as the griot in order to ally film with an ancient autochthonous tradition.
It is used to critique the reductive commonplace of tradition versus modernity employed by partisans of a fabricated, purist, and ultimately nefarious—in its insistence on the notion of an “unadulterated essence”— “return to the roots”; it is blended into narration as an essential component and as a marker for critical moments.
Moussa Sené Absa: A Paradigmatic Case
Tous mes films sont une ode musicale
In his first full-length film, Ça twiste à Poponguine (1993), Sene Absa makes masterly use of video in order to look back at French Pop and American R&B in the context of adolescent rivalries of the 1960’s in a fishing village in Senegal.
The theme is music itself and, in particular, occidental music as a metaphor for the fascination exerted by Europe, and especially by France and French celebrities, among the Senegalese youth of the director’s generation.
Years later, in the autobiographical Ainsi muerent les anges (2001), music serves both as a consolation for and a marker of the bitter isolation faced by the African exiled in Europe.
It is not for nothing that, in the decisive moment in which Moussa, the protagonist, flees from his home in France, he takes refuge in the bar of one of his countrymen and asks a griot there to play for him: nothing, save for the soothing embrace of alcohol and the singer’s familiar melodies, can calm him before his return to his motherland, where he will face the uncomprehending judgment of his father and his former friends.
One of Sené Absa’s key innovations is the explanatory musical excursus, an experimental poetic technique repeated to great effect in his second feature, Madame Brouette (2002).
His most recent work, Téranga Blues (2005), deepens these explorations of the fundamental role of music. In the first, he presents us with a kind of musical in which the interjections of a group of griots punctuate the action while contemporary African pop songs play in the bar where much of the plot unfolds.
In the second, the concept of téranga, the focal point of the film’s drama, is intimately bound both to the plaintive desperation of the blues and to the notion of traditional music as a metaphor for tranquility and honesty in artistic life. These values, regardless of their severity, imply a proper understanding of téranga that is opposed to the fast life with its easy riches and complications.
Cinema represents more than the artistic consciousness of a people; it is equally a window into their desires, passions, and frustrations, and by attending to it in earnest, we transcend those sterile, reductive commonplaces so beloved of certain critics in the West.
A closer attention is therefore needed in the use of music in African cinema, not only for critics and lovers of African film, but for anyone concerned to better understand the significance of music to African’s lives.
This above commentary on the musicology of African cinema has been edited to comply with our editorial word limit. If you would like to read the unedited copy of this research paper, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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