Critical World
Thinking Globalization Through Popular Culture
Trovador of the Black Atlantic
Categories: Critical World Book

 

This article was created to accompany a text that appeared in the edited volume entitled “Music and Globalization:  Critical Encounters” (Indiana University Press, 2012). For more information, visit:  http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/a/MUSGLP

The life of the Senegambian Afro-Cuban singer Laba Sosseh challenges this rigid vantage point and undermines many of the facile suppositions on world music scholarship.

Sosseh was born March 12, 1943 in the “half died city” section of Banjul (then Bathurst), the capital of the Gambia, into a notable griot family.

Sosseh devoted his energy between the 1960s until his death on September 20, 2007, to expanding musical exchanges between West Africa and the Caribbean, two developing regions, by skirting the usual international circuits of cultural exchange.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Sosseh championed a more authentic Cuban style of performing Afro-Cuban music in Africa.   In the 1980s, he reversed direction by pioneering the spreading of an Africanized salsa to the United States and the Caribbean.

In the years before his death, he attempted to introduce his style of Cuban music to Communist Cuba itself.  Sosseh’s career charts an artistic trajectory outside the globalization and cultural imperialist world music paradigms.  Assessing his work spatially reorients dominant world music models and restores agency to non-western performers.

—Richard M. Shain

 

In particular, Sosseh’s success raises questions about the demographics of global music publics and the role of western cultural influence and economic dominance in molding “world musics”.  As Timothy Taylor persuasively points out in another chapter of this book, from a North American or British perspective, world music audiences overlap with classical music publics, sometimes even poaching from them.This group while not large is highly educated, cosmopolitan and prosperous.

—Richard M. Shain

 

Listen to some of Laba Sosseh’s songs:

Son Soneate

Diokma Sa Loxo

Con El Paso

Maricosa

Seyni

Sola

Sitiera

Aminata

 

 

Sosseh’s career also contradicts the argument that economic structures of dominance always determine the direction and nature of transnational cultural flows and that pervasive western influence is always at the heart of world musics.

—Richard M. Shain

Until the 1950s, Senegalese only knew Cuban music through these recordings and radio broadcasts.   However, in the postwar period, Senegalese musical groups began to perform “covers” of Afro-Cuban music. These bands went through a long apprenticeship to approximate a Cuban sound.  Initially, they played Afro-Cuban music note for note, chord for chord, word for word by listening to records repeatedly.

—Richard M. Shain

 

 

According to Sosseh, he and the Cuban-American and Puerto Rican musicians he recorded with faced few obstacles in discovering a common musical language, a tribute to his mastery of Afro-Cuban musical forms and the other musicians’ openness to new ideas

—Richard M. Shain

 

Laba Sosseh’s career is replete with ironies.  He began as an agent of globalization in his own society but in the latter part of his life, he engaged in a globalization in reverse.  An individual of great renown in West Africa, he mostly labored in obscurity in the United States, outside of the Caribbean Hispanic communities.

It is unlikely that many who heard his music over the radio in New York and Miami knew he was Gambian.  Even fewer realized that his work constituted a daring intervention into the complicated terrain of diasporic cultural politics, creating “world music” before that term had been invented.

For many, living “on the hyphen” induces psychological anxiety and cultural confusion with troubling feelings of marginality and liminality.  Sosseh was able to avoid this “nervous condition” by living in the hyphen.  Like Léopold Senghor who lived a very different life, choosing to spend his later years in France instead of Senegal, Sosseh was a true cosmopolitan at home in the world.

For Sosseh, living in the hyphen engendered groundbreaking music and a deeper sense of his Africanité.  Rather than being caught between two cultures, his artistic modus operandi was to be African in a Cuban context and Cuban in an African context.  His incessant migrations trace the reverberations of Afro-Cuban music around the Black Atlantic.

—Richard M. Shain

 

His (Sosseh) incessant migrations trace the reverberations of Afro-Cuban music around the Black Atlantic.  His lasting accomplishment was to add his distinctive voice to that ever-continuing conversation.

—Richard M. Shain

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