West Africa at The British Library – A Personal Experience

Peter Morrell, First Year BMus Student

On Tuesday 3rd November 2015, the first year BMus students visited the British Library exhibition: ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song.’ This was an illustrated history of how song and dance has been formed in West Africa. It also told us how the musical language generated in certain regions of West Africa has spread to and informed music in other parts of the world; it showed this across a broad historical chronology.

We were presented with a display of many different musical threads, all of them connected to West Africa. For instance, a history of ritual was told by some artefacts connected to tribal dances and religious ceremony, different types of drum and some costumes. Another thread told the varied stories of how men and women have interacted with music differently, for example with different roles in carnival dance teams; and also how gender narratives are being told by the British Library to its London-based audience of tourists, visitors and scholars. I have a recently-awakened interest in the origins of jazz and blues music. Parts of this exhibition told the story of African slaves and what interested me most was to see how, in the face of diaspora, the slaves kept their identity thanks to song. Listening to the music through headsets in the exhibition was fun!

After an hour and a half of walking around, most of the class could be discovered on cushions in the reading corner! We looked at some of the African-generated literature on the bookshelf. I was interested to rediscover the work of Chinua Achebe, distantly reminding me of an A-Level encounter with this author and with another portrait of Africa I had studied, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Then it was time for a fascinating discussion with Janet Topp Fargion, one of the two Curators of the exhibition, who spoke to us in depth about how she had spent four years creating this exhibition. It seems a huge range of people were involved in the consultation process.

This was a really quality field trip, giving us plenty of food for thought and so inspiring for our ‘Music in Oral Cultures’ module at City.