Ethno Colloquium: Tsitsi Jaji

Tuesday, February 13, 2018 @ 6:00pm - 7:30pm

Location: Orwig Music Building, Room 109

Tsitsi Jaji is an associate professor at Duke University, and author of Africa in Stereo: Music, Modernism and pan-African Solidarity (winner of the First Book Award, African Literature Association, and citations from SEM and ACLA). She is also the author of a chapbook, Carnaval (2014) and a poetry collection, Beating the Graves, (2017), both published by the African Poetry Book Fund). She is currently on fellowship at the National Humanities Center, and her work has previously been supported by the Mellon Foundation, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, and the Schomburg Center/NEH.

This talk is free and open to the public. To request special services, accommodations, or assistance for this event, please contact Lauren Bitsoli [401-863-3234] as far in advance of the event as possible.

About this Event

Unsettling Scores: Native American Sounds, Black Diasporic Ears

My talk is drawn from an ongoing book project, tentatively entitled Cassava Westerns: Listening to the American Frontier Myth in Global Black Imaginaries. The book examines how Black artists across the globe have bent the American Frontier myth to local ends through satire, critique, alternative historiography, and other aesthetic strategies. Two big questions drive the project: How might we reconceive of postcolonial studies if audition (hearing) were our primary mode of engagement, allowing sound to bring concerns about language, music, and environment to bear on questions of sovereignty and land rights? Why does the U.S.’s racialized history have such aesthetic consequence outside its national borders? My talk, in binary form with brief coda, will focus on two musical engagements with Native American history anchored in the 19th century, works by Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1898-1990), and the second by French Martiniquan composer Jacques Coursil’s Trails of Tears (2010).

The first section of the talk examines the musical scoring and textual representation of Native American voices in “Scenes from the Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,” (1898-1900) an oratorio by the Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. As part of a wave of black fascination with Native Americans in turn of the century African American music, Song of Hiawatha can be usefully considered alongside individual "novelty" songs and “Red Moon” (1908-10), a musical about Native American and African American students at Hampton Institute by Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson. What were the contradictions between the exotic imagery and sound these works employed to represent Native Americans as noble race(d) men and women and the claims on modernity and modernist expression made in the name of black (inter-)nationalisms that fed into the Pan-African Association (with which Coleridge-Taylor was involved) and the New Negro movement (to which James W. Johnson, in particular, contributed so much)?

The second half of the talk turns to free jazz trumpeter Jacques Coursil’s album Trails of Tears. The album a musical meditation on the eviction of Cherokee Indians from their homelands in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee in the 1830s. Informed by his earlier career as a professor of linguistics and Francophone literature, Coursil proposes an alternative historiography. He links the Trail of Tears (called by its Cherokee name, “Nuna Daul Sunyi” in the first track) to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade through the final two tracks, “Gorée” and “The Middle Passage” and in liner notes by Edouard Glissant and others. I am interested in how timbral and generic shifts between two ensembles, one made up of alumni of the 1960s free jazz scene, the other of acoustic and electronic instrumentalists based in Coursil’s country of origin, Martinique, are brought into sonic conversation along similar lines to the conceptual gesture of collocating Black and American histories of forced indigenous displacement and expropriation.

My conclusions will ruminate on what sorts of ideas about race and indigeneity emerge from the wide intervals between Coleridge-Taylor and Coursil’s musical offerings, when listened to in sequence.