Monday, July 1, 2013

When Art Meets Revolution

Nancy Henaku contemplates music's transnational resonances and revolutionary role in her discussion of performances by Neo Muyanga and El-Warsha.
The discussion with Neo and the El-warsha theatre company from Egypt was entertaining and yet intellectually provocative. For me, it seemed interesting that in our bid to discuss the significance of art  (in this case music) in revolutions, we ended up creating a form that was totally different from the forms of presentation that we have had so far at the workshop. The combination of speech, music, storytelling and a question and answer session made the session polyphonic in a way that linked up with the discussions we had been having on the multiplicity and dynamism of forms. What we probably did not realize was that in that session we ended up creating a form that exemplifies our discussions on “the life of forms”. 
I found the sitting arrangement particularly striking. With musicians and audience sitting in a circular formation, there was little or no distance between the two. Coming from Ghana, I was quickly reminded of the Akan storytelling tradition in which there exists an intimate and personalized distance between the performer(s) and audience. By using such an arrangement, we (the listeners) became involved in the performance itself even before we became aware of it. For me, my position in the discussion was dual. On the one hand, I was part of the process of production. On another hand, I was a processor and critic of the kind of knowledge produced in and through the discussion. Consequently, one could say that the arrangement tied in perfectly with the hybridity of the session— a combination of a discussion with a rehearsal.
El-warsha performing with Neo Muyanga
It seemed to me that the performances were defined by a strong link between expression and experience. For one thing, the texture of the musical performances brought to the fore the centrality of orality in African performing arts. This was in consonance with the oral cultural and literary background of the performers. Also, apart from the fact that the combination of elements from traditional hymns, urban church hymns and traditional South African music, the South African music played and performed during the event pointed to the idea that the elements within the songs are in themselves a means through which these performers or composers expressed the duality inherent within their own identities. Also, as explained in the discussion the unison seen in the South African toitoi music and the performance by the El-warsha company from Egypt is a crucial expression of affective states as well as different cultural modes.
Very central to our discussion was the role of art in protests and revolutions. The assertion that “at the very heart of every revolution is a vast history of storytelling” seemed very profound indeed. Music and the arts have been pivotal in all struggles for liberation across the world. In our discussion, our reference points were the Egyptian revolution and the Apartheid struggles, but I can think of the African American struggles and the roles that negro spirituals, blues, jazz and pop music have played in expressing that experience. Music indeed remains an important form of expression in the African struggle.
I came to appreciate in our discussion that both revolutions (the struggle for liberation) and storytelling (arts) need each other. On the one hand, revolutions have a way of giving life and significance to the arts and providing a whole history of human experiences which are then re-presented/re-created through music and other forms of artistic expression. It seems to me that without history (experience), there can be no arts. On the other hand, without storytelling, revolution is useless because storytelling is not just a means for calling people to action but it is also a repository or a re-enactment of the history created via revolution.
I left the session with the understanding that sorrow is not a negative force and that it is actually through sorrow that the fuel for revolution and change is created. 
Nancy Henaku is teaching assistant in the Department of English, University of Ghana

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