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Here is an audio capture of a paper I delivered on Thursday, September 5, 2013 at the Colloquium of the Guelph Jazz Festival, which took place at the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre at the University of Guelph. It’s called “Carnets de Routes Improvisées: Transcultural Encounters in the work of Guy Le Querrec and the Romano-Sclavis-Texier Trio,” and, like the title says, it connects a number of recorded improvisations by a European trio around the African photography of Magnum photographer Guy Le Querrec to certain concepts of decolonization and latter-day ethnography. I try to suggest, in a limited utopian vein, how viable transcultural encounters might be realized through improvisation – not only musical, but visual as well. I also refer to the compelling historical work of Julie Livingston around biomedical practices in southern Africa, particularly her book Improvising medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic (2012). This paper formed part of a two-person panel on media and transculturalism; the other presenter was Alan Stanbridge of the University of Toronto. The moderator for the session, whom you can hear offering an introduction at the beginning of this recording, was Nicholas Loess.
Here is the abstract for the paper:
Sponsored by French cultural institutions, the improvising trio of clarinetist Louis Sclavis, bassist Henri Texier and drummer Aldo Romano formed in early 1990 to undertake a tour of central Africa, including performances in Chad, Gabon, Congo, Cameroon and Guinea. Other tours would follow in 1993 and 1997. Despite both appearance and funding support, this group wasn’t engaged in officially-sanctioned cultural promotion, but had been conceived as an artistic and cultural project by Magnum photographer Guy Le Querrec, who appears to have wanted to chronicle in images the encounters of European jazz musicians with mostly rural African audiences. Le Querrec had already taken numerous photographic trips to North Africa—in 1969-71, 1978 and 1984, for example—trips that had produced significant images in his portfolio concentrating on both the troubling appropriations of ethnographic image-making and the complex challenges and impediments to transcultural understanding. His work with the Romano-Sclavis-Texier trio, now seen in retrospect, constitutes a deliberate post-colonial cultural intervention, a re-engagement by both aesthetic and documentary tactics in parts of the world from which colonial France had withdrawn. Le Querrec curates this particular tour of leading voices in French free jazz—he is listed on the recordings as a fourth member of the trio, not merely as a courtesy but as an active if tacit participant in the performances—for two main reasons. First, Le Querrec is one of the preeminent jazz photographers in Europe, and several of his collections centre on historic images of canonical jazz musicians. A 1997 show in Paris saw musicians (including Texier and Sclavis) improvising to projections of Le Querrec’s work; the show’s title, Jazz comme un Image, suggests how closely Le Querrec links his photography to improvisational musical (and visual) practices, a connection he further clarifies in an artist’s statement for the performance:
Être jazz c’est avant tout une manière de vivre, de se promener sur le fil du hazard pour aller à la rencontre d’un imaginaire qui contient toujours l’improvisation, la curiosité, qui oblige à écouter les autres, à les voir, à être disponible pour mieux les raconter en manifestant sa propre poésie.
This complex sense of likeness, at play in the overlap between rencontrer and raconter, to encounter and to give account, traces itself back in the context of French colonialism and ethnography to the Dakar-Djibouti expedition of 1931-33, and particularly the poetic-documentary writing of Michel Leiris in L’Afrique fantôme and L’Âge d’Homme, the latter of which in particular focuses on the Afrological substrata of jazz. Second, both the trio’s music and Le Querrec’s photography investigate the give-and-take, the tensions between re-appropriation and creative misprision inherent in this jazz-based transcultural model. The music on the three compact discs released by the trio (Carnet de Routes, 1995; Suite Africaine, 1999; African Flashback, 2006; each accompanied by booklets collating Le Querrec’s photographs from their 1990, 1993 and 1997 tours) does not come from their live performances, which seem (apart from the photographs) to have gone undocumented, but consists of recordings in a French studio after the tours were done, improvised reactions to the photographs as well as compositions that emerged from their African experiences. The “poetry” of imaginative encounter that Le Querrec describes is enacted musically (and even visually) in the extemporaneous negotiations of difference, and the creative troubling of Eurocentrisms, that these improvisations offer. Rather than reproduce the exoticism and even nostalgia that shapes late colonial, modernist ethnography, these audio-visual “records” investigate performatively how a transculturalism of shared differences, a contingent community of unlikeness, can be brought extemporaneously into being.