Theses Doctoral

Presence, Absence, and Disjunctures: Popular Music and Politics in Lomé, Togo, 1967-2005

Saibou, Marceline

This dissertation examines the history of popular music in Lomé, the capital city of Togo, a small West African country that has thus far been largely excluded from ethnomusicological inquiry. Through ethnographic and historical research, it explores shifting practices of, ideas about, and sentiments towards, local popular music and their articulations with state power and political culture during the nearly four-decade lasting regime of late President Eyadéma. It divides this long timespan into three distinct periods of political domination. The first period covers the years between Eyadéma’s inception of power in a military coup d’état in 1967 through the rise of his charismatic authority in the 1970s. The second period covers the 1980s, a time of economic decline and growing socio-political tensions, during which the state relied increasingly on terror and violence to solidify its power. The final period covers the last years of Eyadéma’s regime, from the people’s struggle for democracy in the early 1990s through a forged political reconciliation, followed by a gradual process of economic and social liberalization leading up to Eyadéma’s death in 2005.
Within this political framework and chronological outline, this dissertation captures an essentially disjointed history of local popular music, which involves musical characteristics and socio-musical processes that remain substantially unaddressed – as is Togo itself – in the extensive literature on African popular music. These characteristics and processes include the stifling of musical creativity and musical evisceration under state patronage, subtle dynamics of subversion among socially alienated musicians involved in seemingly unremarkable generic musical styles, and an overall predominance of imported popular music styles, rather than the hybrid national popular musics prominently featured in the ethnomusicological literature on West Africa.
This work is structured around the theme of “absence,” a concept that was dominant in the local discourse on popular music in Lomé towards the end of Eyadéma’s regime. The young generation of urban Togolese, especially, mourned the absence of a set of local musical conditions, principally that of an identifiably Togolese popular music sound. By theorizing “absence” as a phenomenon of perception, rather than an objective state of non-existence, the analysis centers on the nature of the disjunctures between that which is desired and expected, and that which is.
In addition to probing various political, economic, cultural, ideological, and discursive trajectories that led up to, and informed, the emergence of perceptions of absence around the turn of the millennium, this work also critically engages with the absence of Togo in the ethnomusicological literature. It identifies, analyzes, and historicizes paradigmatic trends and epistemological conventions that engendered a scholarly concentration on socially vital, stylistically innovative, and audibly “African” popular music cultures, the legacies of which, I argue, have not only inadvertently reinforced celebratory tropes of otherness that parallel those circulating in the context of the World Music market, but have also rendered a place like Togo invisible and inaudible to ethnomusicologists. The larger aim of this dissertation is thus to broaden the scope of the Africanist project on popular music towards the representation of a fuller spectrum of socio-musical experiences in postcolonial Africa through the inclusion of a place whose popular music history is characterized more by absence and alienation than it is by a tangible and assertive musical presence.
The ethnomusicological analysis of post-independence popular music practice in Togo also contributes to the broader literature on this generally understudied country in Africa, by revealing and analyzing larger social and cultural responses to, and articulations with, Eyadéma’s autocratic regime, most importantly the absence of a genuine cultural nationalism in the context of Togo’s Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, a pervasive political disengagement among Togolese in the 1980s, and a short-lived search for a national identity around the turn of the millennium. This dissertation can thus be situated within the larger Africanist body of literature on postcolonial state power. By illuminating the complexities inherent in state-subject relations through an investigation of musicians’ modi operandi across various stages of Togolese political domination, it especially resonates with a body of work inspired by Achille Mbembe that has complicated interpretations of domination in the context of postcolonial totalitarian regimes.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Fox, Aaron Andrew
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 14, 2016