Feedback On African Feedback

by Thomas Brett

In 2004, Italian composer and sound artist Alessandro Bosetti traveled to villages in Mali and Burkina Faso and asked villagers to listen to recordings of Western experimental, minimal, electronic, and improvised music.  As they listened through headphones to randomly selected pieces, Bosetti recorded their real-time reactions–“comments, breaths, attempts to imitate what was heard”–with a stereo microphone.  He later transcribed these reactions and compiled them into a short book called African Feedback (Errant Bodies Press, 2006).  The book also includes a CD of Bosetti’s own sound composition that uses his interviews as source material.

Bosetti talked to over two dozen different people, young and old, and a typical encounter takes up about a page or two of dialogue in the text.  What is immediately apparent upon reading the interviewees’ reactions is how they try to make sense of Bosetti’s recordings at face value–reacting to the sounds as they come, without necessarily having any interest in who composed them (and in some cases, in the sounds themselves).  Some listening sessions lead to conversations about the nature of music and role of music in one’s society; other sessions do very little to elicit strong reactions from the African listener.

For me, this little book (all of 64 pages) is worth its price of admission for a few reasons.  First, I think it was a creative idea on Bosetti’s part to venture out and engage directly with different communities of people through the medium of music recordings and conversation.  I imagine that with this project he got out of his comfort space as a composer to seek dialogue with others.  Even though Bosetti’s original idea was to gather source material for his own creative work, his ethnographic encounters quickly became the main event, and I liked how he was able to go with the flow and let  his work to grow out a shared experience.

Second, the book is, inadvertently perhaps, a powerful refutation of the notion of cultural universals and that musics have universal appeal.  It only takes a few blank stares as a reaction to a recording of music by Olivier Messiaen, Harry Partch, Ryoji Ikeda, or John Cage to remind us that music only makes its best sense to its community of makers/users/fans/consumers/participants, etc.  In other words, there are real limits to what a music can mean, and sometimes the easiest way to explore this idea is to physically bring the music to a new place and see what happens!  (Messiaen in a Malian village is not the same as Messiaen in a concert hall in France . . .)  I’m reminded here of something that I think the ethnomusicologist John Blacking once said about how Westerners make a big deal about being able to distinguish between the intervals of say, a Perfect 4th and a Perfect 5th, but that for other communities of listeners (I believe Blacking was referring to the Venda people of South Africa) these distinctions could very well be rather inconsequential.

A third reason I like Bosetti’s book is that it’s full of little gems of insight.  Some of the gems arise in the responses of the African listeners, like Soulemane, who described Bosetti’s own piece “Zona” as sound made by a white man “to make a profile of illnesses.”  Other gems lie in Bosetti’s extensive footnotes that are incorporated right into the dialogues themselves where he digests his fieldwork encounters, discusses his research strategies, explains how he has been changed by his experiences, and muses on various topics such as the unnaturalness of headphones and the difference between socialized and individual listening.

So what kind of book is this?  It’s not a conventional musical ethnography, and yet it does contain a number of interesting encounters between the author and the people he interviews.  For Bosetti, his field experiences in West Africa were “a crash course on cultural differences, misunderstandings, myth and reality of globalized creativity.”  I don’t really know what Bosetti means by “globalized creativity” but nevertheless, I appreciate how he is not bogged down in theory or the necessity of being in dialogue with an academic discipline.  He just goes for it.

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