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Manan Desai

Manan Desai is an Assistant Professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. His research has been published in Comparative Literature and the Journal of Popular Culture. He has been a member of the Board of Directors of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), where he contributes original archival research, assists in building digital collections, and serves as an editor and contributor to Tides, the online publication of SAADA.

“Listening to the Mau Mau: Colonial Voices and African Exotica”
In the liner notes of his album Jungle Mating Rhythms (1958), the percussionist Chaino was described as “the only survivor of a lost race of people” from Central Africa, rescued by missionaries after witnessing the massacre of his entire family. His albums promised to take their listeners to “unexplored swamps of the Belgian Congo” to listen to savage mating calls, voodoo and rituals of love, and the love chant of the Mau Mau. Unlike the lush instrumentation of the Les Baxter and Arthur Lyman records, Chaino’s albums were deceptively simple: tracks were made up of stripped-down percussion and “primitive” vocalizations. Signaling a different geography of exotica, his albums replaced Pacific, Oriental, and even astronomical spaces with journeys into the colonial fantasies of Africa made famous by the likes of H. Rider Haggard and, allegedly, journeys into the psychosexual (producer Kirby Allan, for instance, mentioned that the records were often referred to as “fuck albums”). But perhaps the most significant aspect of Chaino was that his biography was a total fabrication. Chaino was actually born Leon Johnson, a Chicago-based percussionist whose entire backstory was invented by his producer Allan. In this paper, I examine the case of Chaino and, a similar pair of performers known as Prince Onago and Princess Muana, who, in their albums and concerts in the mid-1950s made claims to being royalty from the Belgian Congo, but who were actually born in East St. Louis. How and why did African American performers use the racialized tropes of exotica as a means to navigate race in America? In what ways did such performances rework 19th century colonial tropes of Africa, while also slyly drawing on contemporaneous forms of anticolonial resistance?

“Locating the Voice in Exotica”
In the postwar period, many new artists, such as Les Baxter, Martin Denny, and Arthur Lyman, found popularity by mining musical exoticisms dating back to the 19th century. Though their liner notes all used the word “exotic” to describe their albums, it is made evident by listening to the music that this was a catchall word. Timothy D. Taylor notes, “Exotic could mean Hawaiian, Latin, Indian, Middle Eastern—it was a single musical sign system.” What was innovative about this music was not the use of Orientalist musical motifs, but how they used the technological capabilities of LPs, hi-fis, Hammonds, Theremins, and stereo recording to transport listeners to other spaces. What was produced was a sound that offered the experience of travel from the comfort of one’s home.

Given the rich layering of electronic mediation evident in Exotica music, trying to discuss the role of the voice may seem counterintuitive. However, this panel will explore what are the stakes of the voice when they are either replaced by voice-like instruments, electronic sounds, and/or divorced from the discourses of liveness. To that end, these papers embark on a musical safari—like the ones promoted in Exotica albums—in order to locate the voice amidst vast sonic spaces that stretch from the jungle to the South Seas and all the way into outer space. By listening for the voice, we seek to trouble the often tourist-friendly ascriptions given to Exotica. Specifically we ask: how does this music give voice to Otherness? We frame Otherness as racialized and/or gendered difference and/or notions of the inhuman.

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