The African Studies Institute and the Hugh Hodgson School of Music will present a colloquium featuring Princeton University professor Kofi Agawu on October 5 at 5 p.m., Iconicity in African Musical Thought and Expression:
At the heart of African expressive behavior is a family of devices designed to achieve varieties of sameness through repetition, variation and imitation. While no single term for them has so far emerged from African-language designation, they collectively represent a widespread and favorite modality. I will use C.S Peirce’s term iconicity to refer to this mode of signification. Icons are based on resemblance and analogy, they do their work through factual similarity between signifier and signified, and they belong to a broad category of firstness. They are at once basic to and unavoidable in African thought and expression. Iconicity models a primal impulse to transpose properties both within and across the boundaries of different domains while maintaining their notional equivalence at a certain level of abstraction.
This paper assembles instances of iconicity in the visual and auditive fields as an introduction to the phenomenon. Examples are drawn mainly from West and Central Africa, and they include instances of communal lamentation (North Borna), talking drumming (Akan and Yoruba), instrumental imitation of a griot (Labé), vocal imitation of instrumental music (Wagogo), recreation of a traditional dance on the piano (Fred O’s Étude, ‘Agbadza’), and a five-man rendition of a war chant (Banda Linda). While the main labor in the paper is devoted to developing a rich characterization of the workings of the iconic mode, I will, at the end, pose a broader (philosophical/political) question about its value: What kind of gift, legacy, constraint, or opportunity is iconicity? Formulating an answer to this question will take us beyond the boundaries of music, narrowly conceived, and prompt us to imagine other patterns of semiotic prioritizing in African creativity.
An extraordinary opportunity to learn about some of the many intricacies of African music. Sponsored by our friends at the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, the event in Edge Recital Hall at the school of music is free and open to the public.