Bob White, 24 October 2013

Title of the Talk: Listening to the Aesthetics of Popular Culture

When? Thursday 24th October 2013 (17:00-18:30)

Where? Ertegun House, St Giles, University of Oxford

Speaker: Bob White (Professor of Anthropology, Université de Montréal)

Photo Courtesy of Bob White

Photo Courtesy of Bob White

Abstract: In the last fifty years, Congolese popular dance music (also known as “Congolese rumba”) has become something of a musica franca for much of sub-Saharan Africa. As Congolese like to say, the captivating sound of their music, firmly grounded in Africa’s encounter with afro-Cuban culture, has “colonized the rest of the continent”, but the music has gone through a series of important aesthetic changes since it first emerged in the urban colonial centers of the Belgian Congo. Despite this rich history, limited research has been done on the subject and very little has been published on Congolese popular music from the point of view of aesthetics. By tuning in on local conversations about certain aspects of the music’s structure and form, this text attempts to understand how Congolese popular dance music attempts to transcend the ugliness of an ongoing political and economic crisis that has become increasingly acute since independence (la conjoncture) and how this particular expression of beauty enables us to better understand the relationship between aesthetics and politics more generally. The perception of “noise” in the analysis of popular music reveals more about our inability to understand non-Western aesthetic criteria than about popular music per se. Drawing from the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer, the metaphor of listening is used to argue that the difficulty of hearing music from someone else’s point of view should not be used to justify a retreat into the self.

Photo Courtesy of Bob White

Photo Courtesy of Bob White

Speaker Biography: Bob W. White is Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Montreal. His book “Rumba Rules: The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu’s Zaire” (Duke University Press, 2008) was the recipient of the Anthony Leeds Prize (2009) and the Joel Gregory Prize (2010).  In the context of this research he conducted participant observation by training as atalaku with the Kinshasa-based dance band Général Defao et les Big Stars. He has published on the production and reception of popular music, music and globalization, the culture concept, collaborative research methods and theories of intersubjectivity. As the director of LABRRI (Laboratoire de recherche en relations interculturelles), his current research is focused on the dynamics of intercultural dynamics in cities.  He is currently writing a book entitled “Breakdown and Breakthrough: An Anthropological Theory of Intercultural Knowledge”.


Event hosted as part of the Seminar in Ethnomusicology and Sound Studies Series, based at St John’s College, University of Oxford.

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