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Re-centring AfroAsia

The Humanities is an indispensable field when producing new knowledge about cultural exchanges among groups of people across continents and languages. It is all the more critical when mapping movements that include diverse yet interdependent disciplines of music, history, anthropology, and sociology.

Re-centring AfroAsia is a multi-pronged research, mapping, and archiving project that aims to not only revolutionise Humanities research in South Africa but also create an AfroAsian community of scholarship.

There are three dimensions to this:

Firstly, as the Charter for the Humanities and the Social Sciences observed, the scholarship on the pre-1652 period is scant and it was untenable to continue as if the history should start with the arrival of the Dutch in the Cape. Although work around Mapungubwe has started re-positioning of Southern Africa in World and African history, it is still a tentative first step.

Secondly, as Mamdani argued, the “customary” is a very recent colonial ossification, trapping Africa into a “traditional” mush which is ahistorical, static and highly problematic.

Thirdly, the aesthetic fields have remained particularly Eurocentric and at best limited to Transatlantic scholarship, with the opening up of Africa’s contribution to the North-East being largely ignored. Furthermore, scholarship has been “Anglocentric” with a vast archive that speaks to Africa’s social, political and cultural past remaining unexplored: Swahili, Farsi, Arabic, Sanskrit and Mandarin (although Farsi was the aristocratic language of the Tang dynasty) sources are as yet unavailable to Southern Africa.

It is informed by exploratory work on the movement of musical forms from and to Africa, Persia, Southern India, China, Madagascar, and Southern Spain, revealing patterns of cultural exchange. In this way, the research is intended to re-centre a knowledge project on an indigenous platform and make what hitherto has appeared to be marginal into a significant cultural contribution. African creativity has been part and parcel of the conception of the “primitive”, whose artifacts and music have been interpreted as the necessary contrast to the modern, the refined, the complex, the original.

The doyen of historical Sociology, Max Weber (1958) makes such points explicitly in his Rational and Social Foundations of Music and until the advent of ethnomusicology, this has functioned as a self-evident truth. No one can deny anymore the important and vital contribution of Africans to the cultural finesse of the Americas, as increasingly it is obvious that the Middle Passage did not only carry slaves, but the Eastern pathways and sea routes are underexplored and the contribution remains marginal. It is with some amusement that one finds the Ethiopian Antara as a political leader in the Arabic North and the founding poet of early Islamic poetry, as much as one finds Zyriab in the 9th century, the manumitted black slave and maestro of Baghdad who becomes the founder of the musical schools of Andalusia.

In its first phase, Re-Centring AfroAsia is planned as a supra-institutional project, housed at the Centre for African Studies and the College of Music at the University of Cape Town, in cooperation with the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, the Wits City Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, and the School of Culture and Creative Expressions of the Ambedkar University, Delhi. It will be directed by Prof Ari Sitas as the principal investigator, working in collaboration with Professors Lungisile Ntsebeza, Michael Nixon, Sylvia Bruinders, Premesh Lalu, and Noëleen Murray in South Africa and Professor Sumangala Damodaran in India.

In its second phase it will be a Trans-African project involving the aforesaid institutions in equal partnership with tertiary institutions in Mozambique, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Egypt and Morocco. Part of the first phase as shall be seen below will be to establish this research partnership.

We propose a multi-pronged six year founding project that seeks to:
a. Map the movement of symbolic and material goods from the 7th Century to the 15th Century AD between urban centres
b. Research, archive the movement of people, and collect the musical and poetic record that can be traced through Swahili, Nguni, Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, Malayalam, Urdu and Mandarin sources
c. Build a new generation of Afropolitan researchers
d. Publish in a range of African languages the findings of such research
e. Establish a broader African network of researchers that will take the project further in years to come

A significant element of the project will be the training of an emerging cohort of researchers through Honours, Masters, and Doctoral bursaries. This speaks to the need for strengthening African scholarship since the nature of the project is such that it will attract students whose backgrounds bear resonance with the geographical spaces of enquiry. With these being areas in which specifically African perspectives are still scarce, building a stronger body of researchers in these areas will help to grow new understandings. The implications that such an initiative has for contributing to curriculum reform at African universities is therefore promising, with an equally assuring possibility for students of this project to eventually take leadership of the initiative in terms of succession.

Re-Centring AfroAsia, beyond its scientific worth, bears a deeper cultural intent in demonstrating the common heritage across contemporary and religious divides that have animated discord and violence. It is hoped that the findings will deepen inter-cultural competence, understanding, tolerance and cooperation, thereby addressing the multiple debates on identity (pre-colonial and contemporary) that are so key for the establishment of any social cohesion. The mere fact that the world’s interconnections traverse modern borders, that what is seen as “traditional”, ever-lasting and essential is a result of movement, borrowing and elaboration will create acuities in a new generation of scholars.

They will firstly begin to sense an African continent without the Berlin Conference borders and secondly sense that national and religious essentialisms do not possess primordial soundtracks. Thirdly, they will recognise that that the musical forms of the lament can neither be about one or another Monotheistic religion, and that people have created despite and sometimes because of intolerable conditions of brutality and violence.

At a time of increasing “fundamentalisms”, racial and ethnic derogation, the project can have a humble but remarkable contribution. Most of the creativity that resonated in the periods before European hegemony was produced by people in servitude in emerging urban formations. Such servitude took many forms from slavery to a gradation of forms of bonded labour and a gradation of forms of autonomy.

Women from all over the world formed a major proportion of this. So did the cultural formations of Ctesipon, of Baghdad, of Zanzibar and of Kilwa. The debates about the role and rights of women and slaves, of values and knowledge, of craft and labour make any ease of assertion of a univocal tradition.