There are just a few weeks to go now until the staging of the collaborative workshop on “Identities in Greater Senegambia and Beyond: Approaches through History and Music in Dialogue”, generously funded through the British Academy BARSEA scheme. This event will take place between June 24-26 at SOAS’s Vernon Square campus, and it really is a one-off, as I’ll explain!
The idea for the workshop grew out of a series of dialogues I have been having over the past year with Dr Lucy Duran, Senior Lecturer in African Music at SOAS. In December 2014, we co-hosted the Gambian scholar of the akonting, Daniel Laeoumahuma Jatta, who I had got to know over several research projects in The Gambia, and thereafter we continued talking. Lucy is one of the world-leading authorities in music from what scholars know as the “Greater Senegambia region” – encompassing Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, Guinea-Bissau and the Republic of Guinea. But music in the region is also indelibly tied to history: traditional musicians hail in many parts of this region from the griot caste, furnishing now world-famous musicians such as Toumani Diabate and Andia Kouyate (who Lucy has also helped to bring to a world stage); and the griot caste is also that of the “official historians” of the region, the repositories of oral histories and traditions dating back several centuries.
Since we both work on the same region from different disciplinary perspectives, and as interdisciplinarity is at the heart of African Studies, the idea emerged to stage a workshop bringing leading practitioners from both disciplines together. This would be a way of doing many things at once: we could interrogate interdisciplinarity in multiple forms, and really “practice as we preach”; we could bring together people from disciplines who never usually have dialogue with one another, but should; and we could also bring together people from countries from across the region in a way that is increasingly difficult to do, given the increasing complexity and costs of international travel in the 21st century and the difficulties of procuring visas.
When we started out, Lucy said that she thought nothing like this had really been attempted since the Manding Conference at SOAS in 1972. To be sure, the Mande Studies Association (MANSA) stages regular congresses, but this is something rather different: alongside the leading historians, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists who will attend are world-leading musical performers, who will dialogue with historians and one another about the historical roots of their art, and also collaborate in workshopping new collaborations.
So we are delighted to be welcoming Manecas Costa and Tony Dudu from Guinea-Bissau, Lassana Diabate from Mali, Kany Kante from Guinea, Kadjaly Kouyate and Kareem Mbaye from Senegal. They will be dialoguing with scholars including Boubakar Barry (recipient of last year’s ASA Distinguished Africanist Award, and the originator of the term “Greater Senegambia”), Hassoum Ceesay (Gambia), Bala Saho (Gambia) and Ibrahima Seck (Senegal), as well as specialists from the USA, France and the UK. This will be a real corner of Africa in London for just three days!
The outcomes of such an event are impossible to be certain of. One thing we hope for is to stimulate discussion on interdisciplinarity. To that end, we’re hosting a follow-up workshop for early career researchers on this theme in African Studies, which will take place at King’s College London in February 2016 as part of the BARSEA scheme. And we will see all kinds of new collaborations, and dialogue which is far harder to achieve these days than was the case in the halcyon days of the Manding conference of 1972 — before the days when Malian visitors had to fly to Dakar just to get a visa!
Toby Green is a lecturer in Lusophone African History and Culture, King’s College London. He was the winner of a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award in April 2015.