Dominion of New York

Art & Entertainment

March 13, 2012

Before Fela: A New Book Explores How Modern Africa Reshaped Jazz

More articles by »
Written by: Kelly Virella


angston Hughes, in a 1955 interview with the Chicago Defender, explained a common American view of the origins and genesis of jazz:

Jazz, America’s own music, is a happy gift which Negroes have given to the whole world. We can be right proud of our musical present wrapped up in the rhythms of Africa that have now gone around the world, refashioned, and back again.
—Langston Hughes, quoted in the Chicago Defender, 1955

The new book Africa Speaks, America Listens questions and challenges that view. The author, historian Robin DG Kelley, contends that jazz is an international art form, born in part in New Orleans, an international city — with Caribbean and Mexican influence — and bred in part in the cosmopolitan New York.

The book follows the careers of four jazz musicians, two Africans — Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren and South African jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin — and two African-Americans — pianist Randy Weston and bassist Ahmed Abdul Malik. It examines the conflicts and collaboration that occurred between African and African-American jazz musicians in places like Lagos, Chicago, New York, or Cape Town.

Pop Matters published an excerpt of it. Africa Is A Country cites reviews of it.

In the interview above, Kelley explains: “Those who argue that jazz is uniquely American, I think in some ways it’s a defensive measure. One of my frustrations is that all the previous scholarship, while willing to acknowledge the impact that American jazz had on the world, is less willing to acknowledge the impact that other forms of music and other jazz had on the US. And this is a problem — one that we’re going to have for a long time — in which we’re able to document that influence flows both ways and that in flowing both ways, it’s not African influence on America or American influence on America that matters. It is the crashing and smashing and collaboration that produces even new music and moves us forward into things no one has ever heard before.”

About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


Jessica Care Moore. Photo by Wide Vision Photography/Marcia Wilson

Restaurant Settles Racial Lawsuit After Pathetic Waiters Slur A Black Customer