CUST-3542H-A: Music Studies: The Black Atlantic
Instructor Dr. Martin Arnold
The ways that music originating from West Africa has deeply influenced the worldwide music industry, are explored through The Black Atlantic, a dynamic course in Cultural Studies at Trent.
CUST-3542H-A: Music Studies: The Black Atlantic outlines how music genres from country to funk to psychedelic rock can all be linked back to West African influence.
“It was a privilege to be able to learn about the powerful impact and positive influence that West Africans had and continue to have in the music world,” says Maya Saunders, a recent graduate. “I felt such a sense of pride in every class learning about how my ancestors played a part in shaping music as we know it.”
Culture without borders
The Cultural Studies course has students listen to, think about and learn from music of The Black Atlantic – a term coined by scholar Paul Gilroy that refers to a radically complex and heterogeneous culture with roots in Africa.
It is a culture without borders, clear ethnicities and nationalities, that was formed by various diasporas of African peoples in the wake of colonialism and through the Atlantic slave trade.
Instructor Dr. Martin Arnold, a professional composer of experimental music, says there can be a profound impact on those who study this music – which also includes blues, jazz, reggae, salsa, Bossa nova, Tropicalia, Afrobeat and juju – as they explore and engage with its origins, place in history, ongoing influence and capacity for change.
“It’s important to approach this music without the goal to contain, grasp or understand it but rather to see the potential for change within it,” Professor Arnold says. “Through the music, we discover a sensibility whose source is an African imagination very different from that of the post-enlightenment, post-European colonial culture. It can give you the desire to no longer be satisfied with your given world view. It can make you question who you are and everything around you.”
James Brown music ‘lays down a groove and keeps you there’
One staple of the course, he explains, is listening to James Brown’s Superbad and discussing ideas such as the song being neither fast nor slow, how you can dance to all of the layers of rhythmic patterns cycling at different speeds, and how the legendary singer can use his voice like a drum.
Prof. Arnold explains this song doesn’t have a beginning, climax or ending.
“James Brown’s music just goes – it lays down a groove and keeps you there,” Prof. Arnold says. “In that, it’s different from European Classical music that emulates dramatic narrative, through progression and development and playing with expectations.”
During class discussions, Prof. Arnold also explores how listening to music changes lives, guides discourse and shapes world views.
When Prof. Arnold was a teenager, he was profoundly changed when he started listening to music by Jazz artists such as Cecil Taylor and Charles Mingus.
“In listening to their music, I became unconvinced of the established ideas of what the world was about,” Prof. Arnold says. “It made me look more critically at society and embrace the power of difference; I saw hope for radical change.”
His hope now is for students to learn from the music and not take their own world views for granted but instead to question how things work in popular culture.
“And I hope they take from it different ideas about what it is to be human,” he says.
Learn more about Trent University’s Cultural Studies, which provides students with the theoretical and practical tools to critique and create culture. Applications for this programs remain open for Fall 2021.