Can we consciously enact Sankofa if what we are searching for cannot be reduced to writing, or must we sit around and wait for the spirit to reveal itself unannounced?
‘Wɔpo’ is the start of a journey into mediating my seemingly antagonistic cultural allegiances of British and Asante (a subgroup of the Akan of Ghana) and, by extension, suggests how we might create a meta-culture that transcends boundaries of geography, class, race, and time. In keeping with the Akan concept of Sankofa (‘go back and fetch it’), which encourages the use of ancestral wisdom as a guide for the future, ‘Wɔpo’ voyages through ancient myth, religion, symbolism, ritual, proverb, etymology, and diasporic history. Obstacles to this arbitration and any points of friction have been emphasised, rather than avoided. W. E. B. Du Bois’ theory of ‘double-consciousness’, whereby diasporic Africans are susceptible to viewing themselves through the ‘revelation of the other world’, has been extended to the level of culture itself: even those with a resolve to enact Sankofa risk misinterpreting the antecedent culture as a result of alternate socialisation and the lack of sub-Saharan writing systems that document from the emic viewpoint; you are at the mercy of the authorship and artistry of the ‘outsider’.
The project exists in two forms: the Milanote mindmap edition, which can be traversed online and at the discretion of the viewer, and the performance edition, in which I guide a live audience through an immersive, semi-improvisational version of the mindmap in my university’s Sound Diffusion Lab. The audience were surrounded with asynchronous dual projections and atmospheric audio, and left to assemble their own connections between my narrations and the various media presented to them; an assertive, coherent joining-of-the-dots on my part would have been counterintuitive to the format. I extended the mindmap into the space further through intermittent live drawing, alongside the music, that did not necessarily illustrate the previous narration, but something at another level of the map, embodying the non-linearity of a mindmap and the gallimaufry of ideas that must be untangled. Although these performances have come to an end for now, extracts from them can be accessed via the online mindmap.
The format was inspired in part by Ishmael Reed’s ‘Mumbo Jumbo’. The novel is the literary equivalent of a collage, with newspaper clippings, images, and quotations interspersed with an anachronistic narrative that follows the spread of the African spirit and satirises the need for a Text to document culture. The title ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ itself relates to my investigations into scat – these seemingly nonsensical syllables that act as a re-manifestation of some ill-defined part of African culture – the language without a language barrier that perhaps mitigates against the diasporic African’s geographical detachment. The scat that led to the doo-wop music of mid-20th century African-American communities is one part of the ‘Wɔpo’ portmanteau, alongside ‘ɔpo’, the Asante-Twi word for ocean; the Atlantic has deep historical significance for the diaspora and it is the water that must be bridged.
The mindmap’s music re-animates ancestors through its incorporation of samples that connect to the surrounding references, and brings myself in through nonsensical singing in the form of scat, reversed audio, mispronounced Twi, and cross-synthesis with Atlantic waves. These vocalisations perhaps sonify the awkward, makeshift unity among the Siamese crocodiles of ‘Funtumfunefu Denkyemfunefu’, an Adinkra symbol of the Akan: the African language and English accent are both present in my music, but the words are now either encoded or sung through a re-formatted version of my voice, confusing the dialogue surrounding ‘cultural appropriation’. Furthermore, I created convolution reverbs out of impulse responses recorded by my current residence on Brighton seafront, in order to both bring in the Atlantic and situate the project within my personal experience. I was also conscious of a few Akan musical forms, particularly the oscillation between parallel thirds in a heptatonic scale, and the incorporation of the rhythms of the Akɔm (‘trances’) ceremony, though they were applied to the vocals instead of the drums.
Can we consciously enact Sankofa if what we are searching for cannot be reduced to writing, or must we sit around and wait for the spirit to reveal itself unannounced? Are concerns over ‘cultural appropriation’ justifiable or are they contributing to tribalistic identity politics? What does this mean for artists with ancestors on both sides? These are some of the questions put forward in ‘Wɔpo’. It is not an attempt to side with any social organisation or individual culture, but to ascend to the realm of universal truths. Reed’s novel is similarly dissociative, its satire indiscriminate of race or class; even civil rights activists are ridiculed if their methods indicate the same sort of tribalistic philosophy as their oppressors. ‘Wɔpo’ goes back and fetches from the earliest of ancestors and civilisations, our own judgement clouded as it is by mis-documentation and the legacies of more recent history. A hyper-referential mindmap allowed me to manage this enormous scope while my personal affiliation to the subject is evinced through the performances.
The mindmap can be accessed directly here:
or via my website here: