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CBMR Digest

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ISSN # 2168-3301fall 2013 | Volume 26, No. 2

CBMR/Europe Presents International Seminar

Stylizing Africa: The Renaissance Fashion (and beyond)
Una moda Rinascimentale: stilizzare l’Africa

—Cecilia Nocilli

Various presentations and discussions animated the international seminar Stylizing Africa: The Renaissance Fashion (and beyond)/Una moda rinascimentale: stilizzare l’Africa, that was held in Lecce, Italy, October 15–16, 2013, in the Sala della Grottesca, located in the cloister of the provost’s building of the University of Salento. The European chapter of the Center for Black Music Research and the University of Salento organized the event, together with the CBMR at Columbia College Chicago, with primary funding provided by a Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellowship (FP7-People-2011-IOF) and the Monte dei Paschi di Siena.

The seminar was introduced by Mario Lombardo, head of the University of Salento Department of Cultural Heritage, and by Gianfranco Salvatore, the director of the Black&White Series, who envisioned, planned, and produced the event. The first session, titled Sight & Visuals, was opened by Kate Lowe (Queen Mary, University of London). Though she could not be present at the symposium, she opened the seminar via teleconferencing with a brilliant paper titled “Sites Unseen: Marking The Everyday Lives of Black Africans in Renaissance Italy,” in which she analyzed the collective imagery of the European idea of Africa, and focused on the concept of historical memory in Europe, as opposed to the same concept in Africa. In particular, she pointed out different perceptions of the African presence in Europe, which is perceived as a fact with historical implications, and in America, where the implications are more political. Lowe examined numerous examples of a black presence in the European Renaissance, beginning with an analysis of a famous painting by Ghirlandaio in the Cappella Sassetti of the church of Santa Trinità in Florence, in which a dark-skinned woman, probably a nanny, can be seen. She then discussed the treatise on music theory by the Afro-Portuguese Vicente Lusitano, and then focused on documents from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that raised questions about burial grounds for Africans in the city of Lisbon. Lowe’s presentation sparked continuing discussions and reflections throughout the two-day event.

The second session, titled “Stylize it Twice: The Iconography of Moresca Dance,” was introduced by Gianfranco Salvatore, who contextualized the moresca in a way that identified and clarified the many implications of its diffusion in Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The study of the presence of this dance genre in Italy requires a complex methodological and analytical approach. To date, studies in choreology have generally failed to explore the possible African origins of the moresca. Salvatore affirmed that the concept of stylization, as noted in the title of the seminar, leads one to think about the possible manipulation and distortion of the original dance genre. After he showed a collection of images related to moresca—some unknown and some unpublished—and provided a general overview of the evidence of the moresca in the iconography of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Salvatore emphasized the common traits that characterized the performance of moresca, for both male and female dancers. These performance traits include a virtuosic approach, twisting of the torso, the kinetic representation, and exuberant body movements. Salvatore noted that these traits are also found in twentieth-century jazz dance.

An interdisciplinary group of discussants participated in the seminar: Daniela Castaldo, Università del Salento (iconography); Dinko Fabris, president of the International Musicological Society (musicology); Gerhard Kubik, University of Vienna (ethnomusicology); Cecilia Nocilli, Escuela Superior de Arte Dramático de Castilla y León, Valladolid, Spain (musicology and choreology); and Barbara Mousy, Afrodanza (ethno-choreology). Their presence generated inspired and thoughtful discussion, both within the group of scholars and within the audience in the Sala della Grottesca. At the end of the first day of the seminar, Barbara Mousy offered an illustrative and practical workshop on African dance styles.

The second day of the seminar was focused on Music and Lyrics and was opened by two luminaries in the field of linguistics, especially in researching the Kanuri language and Afro-Spanish jargon. Norbert Cyffer (Professor Emeritus, Department of African Studies, University of Vienna) presented an overview of the Kanuri language, which is the most-documented language in the history of African languages. He gave various examples of idiomatic changes in the Kanuri language that have developed due to differences of speech rhythms and to the displacement of accents that usually result in altered meanings of some Kanuri words. He concluded his presentation with a tale in Kanuri titled “The Representative of the King of England in Borno,” that emphasized the particular sounds of the language. John Lipski (Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Spanish and Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania) presented the session’s second paper, in which he explored a common practice in the Afro-Spanish jargon—the use of the infinitive instead of verb inflection, and the typical substitution of the pronoun “mi/me” for “yo/I.” Lingua franca developed by using similar linguistic patterns, and by merging elements from highly simplified versions of romance languages. After the two presentations, Gianfranco Salvatore proposed to have a collaborative exploration of moresca song lyrics published by Orlande de Lassus between 1555 and 1581. The discussion successfully highlighted the probable origin of many linguistic elements (words, phrases, or expressions): some of them may have Kanuri origins; some of them come from Neapolitan dialects; and one case probably comes from lingua franca.

Gianpaolo Chiriacò (fellow at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago, and Marie Curie researcher at the University of Salento) presented a paper titled “Afro-Vocality in the Western World: A Research Project on Vocal Traditions within the African Diasporas.” By concluding the international seminar, his contribution pointed out a way in which the research on the cultural effects of the African presence in Europe can be expanded beyond the Renaissance, as expressed by the title of the event. Chiriacò analyzed the dichotomy between the concepts of black voices and black vocality. Though many feel that a characteristic black voice exists, it is impossible to demonstrate that voices possess common elements within a community or in a specific geographical area. Chiriacò demonstrated that, by focusing on vocality, research can be concentrated on memory and on cultural and social contexts. He drew upon examples within the African-American context, both historical (field hollers) and contemporary (the rapper Tim’m West). Chiriacò’s paper is part of his work-in-progress based at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago, that will later include an exploration of the vocality within the contemporary African diaspora in Italy.

In conclusion, the international seminar at the University of Salento refocused attention on an often dismissed aspect of the Renaissance. Just as the displacement of an accent in the Kanuri language can change the meaning of a word, the seminar similarly broadened the horizon on the perception of Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and in the contemporary world. The seminar also demonstrated the need to reflect on the contemporary European perception of Africa, as part of an expanded reflection on the reconfiguration of the European identities in the twenty-first century.

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