CALL-RESPONSE: Oral-Aesthetic Motif
In Africa it is said that each person has a rhythm to which they alone dance, or alternatively – since words (nommo) are nested in these rhythms – a call to which they respond. The call-response conversation is where nommo takes seed and evolves through the matriarchally-conscious dynamics of the Bantu journey. When looked upon as an organic “hero’s journey” – which typically begins with a “call to adventure” – a deeper significance of this traditional oral-aesthetic motif emerges.
“Having responded to his own call, and continuing to follow courageously as the consequences unfold, the hero finds all the forces of the unconscious at his side. Mother Nature herself supports the mighty task. And in so far as the hero’s act coincides with that for which his society is ready, he seems to ride on the great rhythm of the historical process.” (Joseph Campbell – The Hero With A Thousand Faces, 1949).
Call-response is a means of training discernment in bantu (people) of this mythoform, of demonstrating the process of creation and evolution within the outer matrix of time and space (hantu). As mythoform, call-response may be regarded as Spirit (Ntu) dancing-in-sound as an overture to the dance-in-flesh, which charts its extensions into the community. This call-response intercourse between spirit and flesh thus becomes both creator and creation, being and becoming, masculine (nommo…word/seed) and feminine (flesh/earth)… a transaction of life’s forces of conception, creation, and agency resident in each person and evident in the collective hero’s journey that affirms “I am because we are, and since we are therefore I am.” (Ubuntu)
“It takes a village to raise a child” (African proverb)
Education, socialization, and spiritual grounding is not a detached intellectual learning, but a lived experience – the village raising the child – mediated through music, the oral-aesthetic vehicle which accompanies each African through every activity and rite-of-passage in their communal life. Music (enhanced nommo) creates a working balance between the developing individual and the community by eliciting conscious interaction between the various agents on either side of the call-response motif. These agents include the invisible and ancestral spirits who are believed to be actively participating in the arena of everyday life in the visible community, sometimes showing up as figures who provide protective amulets and support for the one(s) engaged in the hero’s journey (responding to the call).
By exercising oral-aesthetic motifs such as call-response, an inclusive field is anchored and actively nurtured by Bantu over time and space (hantu) in the global village, as evidenced in Black popular music. The oral aesthetic has provided accompaniment from cradle (flesh) to cradle (earth) in the individual’s journey… through the Middle-Passage (slavery) to the Diaspora in the group journey… and during other significant threshold crossings in the Bantu hero’s journey.
Through the lyrics of Lift Every Voice and Sing, for instance, a call may be said to have been issued from the Harlem Renaissance (1920’s Jazz Age) which received a response during the 1960s renaissance period in the northern and southern hemispheres of the global village. Nina Simone’s Young, Gifted & Black, the Civil Rights anthem, gave voice to the spirit of that response in America as future leaders, the King of Pop among them, were undergoing various stages of initiation in their personal hero’s journeys. Meanwhile King of Soul, Sam Cooke, led the field of gospel artists crossing over the “secular” threshold into Soul, in the process expanding the oral-aesthetic mission field of the Bantu universe. As Peter Guralnick states in The Gospel Highway (BBC) “You couldn’t have the popular music we have today without that crossover from the Black church to pop.”
Call-response is thus the fundamental unit of communication in the oral universe that assumes interactivity and connects interested individuals, groups, and communities despite boundaries reflecting and protecting adversarial interests. Its enactment in musical performance reconstructs, reflects and reinforces social and political order on a community-friendly level. This oral-aesthetic motif differs somewhat in purpose and style according to whether the community in question has a centralized or decentralized form of governance or group activity. In either case, interactive communication and group cohesiveness are of paramount importance in the enactment of this motif. Separations between performer-audience, musician-dancer, and others typically found in a Eurocentric performance context don’t apply in the same way here because of the participatory group dynamics that are enacted to affirm Ubuntu: “I am because we are…”
Within the Ubuntu model, there are two main group dynamics that show up as stylistic differences in popular music expression:
- The hocket-technique or interlocking style employed by African hunting-and-gathering societies in which each member contributes substantially at different points in the group performance. This style reflects a decentralized system of consensus and nurtures the interdependence that is necessary for group success. Examples of this call-response model appear in plantation work-songs with carryovers into conversational styles of present-day pop-music such as jazz, as well as the a-capella performances of groups such as Take-6 or Naturally-7 (see Wall of Sound) which also provide powerful demonstrations of the Talking Drum oral-aesthetic motif.
- Bantu societies with a centralized authority structure are supported and exposed by leader-chorus forms of call-response, as stated in the African proverb: “it is the people that make a leader great.” The leader in African tradition must be able to demonstrate oral-aesthetic skills that elicit confidence from the chorus whose responses represent a barometer of public approval, measuring how well the leader mediates between them and the spiritual-ancestral realm. As the symbolic custodians of the tradition or the collective nommo which inspires the community, the authority granted to such African leaders is sacred. Because the leader mediates between the deeper mythoforms of the spiritual-ancestral realm and the outward oral-aesthetic extensions and responses of the community, their moral condition is as much an issue as the aesthetic impact of their performance. African leaders who do not uphold oral-aesthetic traditions well, by singing or dancing awkwardly for instance, have been removed by the people. (The Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY has continued this tradition with performers who don’t draw audience support.)
The Black folk church in America has preserved the requisite sacrality of this leader-chorus call-response relationship between the preacher-congregation, as its communication modes were given broader application in the global village through popular music formats such as Soul. And it is within this cultural rationale that designations such as the Godfather of Soul (James Brown); the King of Soul (Sam Cooke); the Queen of Soul (Aretha Franklin); Black Moses (Isaac Hayes); and the King of Pop (Michael Jackson) have significance and authority in the traditional sense. Their command of the oral-aesthetic is largely attributable to such African traditions and a cultural dynamic nurtured and sustained by the Black folk church. The level of authentic enthusiasm and size of their “chorus”/constituency is a measure of their leadership power.
A Media & Matriarchal Aesthetic Perspective
Call-response, to use The Medium Is the Message author and scholar Marshall McLuhan’s terms, would be distinguished by its “cool” medium dynamics. He suggests that cool media provide low-definition output, thus requiring high-participation (call-response) for completion. This requisite environment of art-for-life’s-sake production thus “tribalizes” (McLuhan’s term) by its imperative to be interactive and therefore inclusive. In other words, the oral universe is the elemental aesthetic context for UBUNTU – “I am because we are, and since we are therefore I am.”
“Hot” media, on the other hand are already so well-filled with data as a rule that they do not leave much to be filled in or completed by their audience. Because they extend one single sense into high-definition, McLuhan suggests that hot media involves low-participation, tends to be hegemonic, and thus also effects hypnosis. Examples he provides include the photograph; print media such as newspapers and books; television and movies; theater; the lecture; dance forms such as the waltz and ballet; western classical music & opera. The artist’s constituency need not be present, and art is often created as a commodity (art-for-art’s-sake) to be consumed by an “audience” or “marketplace” on the opposite end of an extended chain of communication – e.g. author/artist-text/art-agent-dealer-audience-marketplace – in an industrialized model.
The difference between “hot” and “cool” media also characterizes the tension matriarchal aesthetics has with a Europatriarchal order, as Heide Gottner-Abendroth states:
“Matriarchal art does not correspond to an extended model of communication with the elements: author-text-dealer-agent-audience. The dealer (art market) and agent (critic, interpreter, etc.) are redundant. As it is a process which takes place between the participants matriarchal art cannot be evaluated and interpreted by outsiders nor sold as a commodity on the art market and later stored away in a dusty archive or exhibited in a museum. For matriarchal art cannot be objectified; that is, turned into an object. It is a dynamic process characterized by ecstasy and with a positive impact on reality (magic).” (from The Dancing Goddess: Principles of a Matriarchal Aesthetic, 1985: 83)