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The “tribal drum” and Literary Radio: The Postcolonial Poetics of the Transcription Centre’s Africa Abroad

On June 1, 1963, J. P. Clark’s poem “Agbor Dancer” was recorded for the London-based Transcription Centre’s program Africa Abroad, an English-language radio magazine program distributed for broadcast on multiple African stations.[1] Africa Abroad producer Lewis Nkosi praised the poem and recorded it in its entirety in his review of the anthology Poems from Black Africa, edited by Langston Hughes.[2] In “Agbor Dancer,” the speaker watches a woman dance to drums and juxtaposes the dancer’s connection to “communal” identity through music and dance with the isolating effects of language and print.[3] The poem, first published in print and then broadcast, describes West African aural and kinetic traditions while also using and referencing European literary traditions. What does it mean to take this poem, often read as a reflection on the alienating effects of print culture, and record it for radio broadcast instead of distributing it through print? Christopher Okigbo’s poem “Lament of the Drums,” which Okigbo read selections from and discussed on Africa Abroad in 1965, also explores the relationship between oral and print cultures. These two Anglophone Nigerian poets’ engagements with orality and print are productive sites from which to explore the role of radio in mid-century African literary cultures more broadly. In the case of “Agbor Dancer,” the radio broadcast remediates the written description of music and dance and accentuates the poem’s existing aural elements, including meter, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance. Okigbo’s account of composing “Lament of the Drums” emphasizes his work’s synthesis of aurality and print and challenges cultural narratives that describe incommensurable differences between sound and print forms. Clark’s and Okigbo’s verse, read within the context of the Transcription Centre’s intermedial project of producing African literary programming, challenges media studies’ teleological account of a transition between the “primitive” and “typographic” that draws strict distinctions between orality and literacy.

Drums, a common reference in postcolonial African verse, appear in each poem as a motif of indigenous cultural expression and communication through which Clark and Okigbo trace Africa’s changing mediascape in the mid-twentieth century. Radio technology, particularly in Africa, has been often compared to the drum, as both are used to communicate aurally across distance. The increasing affordability of radio sets in the mid-twentieth-century, the perception of Africa as “the oral continent par excellence,” and the development of programming from national, commercial, and overseas sources all contributed to the “overwhelming dominance” of radio as a medium.[4] Radio broadcasting was established in Africa during the colonial period; by the 1960s, there was much interest within and outside of Africa in expanding radio access and programming in what Donald Browne terms a “postcolonial scramble for the ether.”[5] Much of this programming was didactic and included political propaganda, religious proselytization, education, social reform, and anti-communism, but “radio was always far more multifaceted and slippery than was intended by the colonial powers.”[6] Radio was taken up as an exciting tool to facilitate the distribution and discussion of literature in programs such as the BBC’s West African Voices and the Transcription Centre’s Africa Abroad; postcolonial writers’ voices were frequently on air through their literary pieces, interviews, and critical commentary. If, as Brian Larkin argues in Signal and Noise, “media technologies” such as radio played a key “role in producing what we call urban Africa,” radio also helped produce what we know as literary Africa.[7] Clark’s and Okigbo’s poems draw from specific drum traditions (and in Okigbo’s case synthesize materials from multiple West African traditions); Africa Abroad programs, however, often return to the question of “the coherence and diversity of African identity.”[8] In using Anglophone Nigerian poems to think about African literature and media studies, the goal of this paper is not to overgeneralize from these poets’ work, but instead to demonstrate how locally contextualized examples challenge certain mid-century claims about drums and orality while also acknowledging what oral literature scholars such as Isidore Okpewho have identified as “common features and customs” across the African continent.[9] Clark’s and Okigbo’s poems do not directly theorize the role of radio in Africa, but “Agbor Dancer” and “Lament of the Drums” present the drum as a unique cultural form and sound communication technology with roots in the precolonial oral and musical traditions of West Africa.[10] The poems and the paratextual material of the radio programs engage key questions of mid-century media studies while also resisting the Eurocentric assumptions underpinning the field’s cultural development narratives.

In the early 1960s, North American and British literary and media theorists were much preoccupied with orality and its relationship to print: Eric Havelock identifies 1963 as the year in which there was a “sudden explosion of interest” in orality.[11] Clark’s and Okigbo’s broadcast poems conceptualize drums as media in a similar fashion to Marshall McLuhan’s roughly contemporaneous pronouncement of media as “extensions of man” in Understanding Media (1964).[12] The contrasting figures of the dancer and the poet in “Agbor Dancer,” for instance, could be interpreted in terms of McLuhan’s “primitive” and “typographic” man or as embodying the transition, later described by Walter Ong, McLuhan’s one-time student, from orality to literacy.[13] Drums, though aural rather than oral, are closely integrated with modes of “oral performance” and, in the case of talking drums, are considered “a special medium of speech” with unique social roles and functions (Okpewho, African Oral Literature, 253).[14] Okigbo spoke frequently about integrating West African oral literatures and musical genres in his print poetry. While African writers and North American media theorists were both heavily invested in oral cultures, McLuhan’s influential claims about the role of media in society often drew, as did the work of other mid-twentieth-century scholars of orality, literacy, and media, from colonialist anthropological accounts.[15] Ruth Finnegan, a scholar of African oral literatures, directly critiqued such conceptions of orality in Literacy and Orality (1988), demonstrating how British and North American media theorists’ conclusions were often not supported by the details of specific “historical circumstances.”[16]

Unlike McLuhan’s and Ong’s interpretation of African drums, Clark and Okigbo do not position drums as relics; rather, these poems and the Africa Abroad programs challenge media studies’ deterministic assumptions of a “technologically based great divide between the oral and the literate” (Finnegan, Literacy and Orality, 14). Particularly germane is these poems’ intermediality: the poems are not direct transcriptions of sound performances; rather, each poet was inspired by printed material—Clark by a photograph and Okigbo by J. H. Nketia’s essay on Akan poetry. The photograph and essay themselves “remediate” forms of oral cultures—music, dance, and the poetry of talking drums.[17] Clark and Okigbo again remediate these sounds and movements through poetry, an “auditory medium,” and the poems are further auralized when recorded for radio broadcast.[18] While McLuhan, Ong, and the Transcription Centre’s writers and producers share an interest in the role of drums in oral cultures, transitions to print, and the role of radio in twentieth-century Africa, the Transcription Centre’s radio programs interrogate North American theorists’ accounts of the transition from indigenous oral communications infrastructures to print to electronic media. Not only do Africa Abroad’s programs of poetry and literary discussion provide compelling examples of the intermedial relationship between published print and oral literature, these programs also link oral communication, print literature, and twentieth-century broadcast media in ways that ultimately challenge teleological narratives that position aurality and orality as static or of the past.[19]

The Transcription Centre

The Transcription Centre was founded in 1962 by Dennis Duerden, a British art critic, former colonial education officer in Nigeria, and the former director of the BBC’s Hausa Service. Based in London, the Transcription Centre produced programs in English discussing literature, music, and politics that were then distributed by tape to African radio stations (including stations in Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Zambia, and Ghana) as well as European, US, and Asian stations.[20] Africa Abroad (1962-1966), produced by South African writer and journalist Lewis Nkosi, was a radio magazine program about literature, music, arts, and politics in Africa and African intellectuals who were living in Europe and the United States; the program regularly highlighted articles published in journals like Transition and Black Orpheus as well as recent books on African literature, culture, and politics. Before joining the Transcription Centre, Nkosi wrote for Drum from 1957 until 1960, and his time at the influential South African magazine is considered “a defining moment” in his life.[21] In its journalism, fiction, and jazz writing, Drum consistently emphasized the importance of sound, voice, and rhythm in representing mid-twentieth century urban South Africa.[22] This was particularly evident in the magazine’s writing on jazz; Drum writers emphasized the syncretism of the genre, and jazz critic Todd Matshikiza is noted for the formal experimentation in which he attempted to bring “the style of the reporting closer to that of jazz music and, through this turn to musicality, to the speech of the urban black community.”[23] The elements of musicality and voice prioritized in Drum are those which are then highlighted in literary programs Nkosi produced for the Transcription Centre.

The Transcription Centre’s focus on radio reflects European and North American nations’ worries during the Cold War about radio as a medium well-suited to spread propaganda as well as these nations’ desire to use radio for their own propagandistic aims. McLuhan’s epigrammatic description of radio as “the tribal drum,” a collective sound medium in the lineage of “the resonating echoes of tribal horns and antique drums,” occurs within a discussion of radio as a “hot” medium with the power to “retribalize mankind, its almost instant reversal of individualism into collectivism, Fascist or Marxist” (Understanding Media, 259, 261, 265). The Cold War-era logic creates slippage between colonialist rhetoric (i. e. representations of oral cultures that positioned cultures and nations on a developmental timeline) to anti-fascist and then anti-communist arguments. McLuhan writes, “For Africa, India, China, and even Russia, radio is a profound archaic force, a time bond with the most ancient past and long-forgotten experience” (263). For McLuhan, Third and Second World nations occupy an “archaic” space when compared to the modern First World. The Transcription Centre was funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) and the Farfield Foundation, both of which were revealed as CIA fronts in 1966. The CCF and other organizations feared communist nations’ radio broadcasts to Africa and wanted to counter such broadcasts with their own.[24] As Frances Stonor Saunders has shown in The Cultural Cold War, the CCF pursued American influence through positive publicity and the promotion of certain ideas over others.[25] It was obvious at the time, though writers associated with the Transcription Centre did not seem to know of the CIA funding, that the center was funded with Cold War political goals of encouraging African intellectuals to build connections with the “West” (and particularly the United States) rather than the Soviet Union.

While the foundations’ representatives sometimes tried to persuade Duerden to engage more directly with politics, they did not force the Transcription Centre to broadcast specific content or appear to censor programs; Peter Benson recounts a similar lack of “stipulations or conditions” in the Congress’ funding of the Ugandan journal Transition.[26] Peter Kalliney argues that African writers associated with the Transcription Centre and other ventures funded by CCF claimed creative autonomy as a generative position from which to carve out spaces of aesthetic expression.[27] By recording interviews, critical talks, or selections of their work with the Transcription Centre, African writers were not subsumed in a monolithic Western radio propaganda project, but neither do these works or these writers exist in some “pure” aesthetic realm apart from politics. As Nathan Suhr-Sytsma argues regarding CCF’s sponsorship of Black Orpheus and the Mbari Artists’ and Writers’ Club, it is productive to consider the ways literature attempts “to address the struggles of social life in a distinctive language while thoroughly embedded within these struggles.”[28] In the case of the Transcription Centre, producers and writers had, by all accounts, a good deal of creative control, and many valued the outlet, even while knowing that the funders had political aims in mind.

Throughout the twentieth century, radio was viewed as a medium particularly suitable for Africa because radio was believed an effective “link to the oral and the aural in the history and cultural practices of the continent” (Gunner, Ligaga, and Moyo, Radio in Africa, 1). A Transcription Centre report noted that “African radio stations are being showered with tapes by transcription services from all over the world. The air in Africa is full of a continuous stream of broadcast sound.”[29] Literary radio programming was believed to uniquely fuse orality and print by restoring the element of oral performance to print texts and using twentieth-century technology to reach a larger audience than could be reached by a single orator or performing poet. While some radio theorists and practitioners in the 1960s were interested in the aesthetic and political implications of radio as a form of electronic orality, Duerden’s interest was chiefly technological and relational. His hope was that Transcription Centre projects would help provide African broadcasting services with “material from other African writers, lecturers and students outside Africa” as well as “recordings of the work of Afro-American writers in the United States, the Caribbean and South America.”[30] Such projects would connect African writers, artists, and intellectuals with others throughout the continent, with members of the African diaspora, and with broader global audiences. As director, his correspondence is full of the granular details required to undertake this sort of radio production, from gathering participants, recording and editing shows, and querying radio stations to sending sample scripts and tapes. Unlike idealized depictions of wireless beams transmitting effortlessly and independently across the globe, these records underscore the fact that radio programs are created by a number of people and require the physical underpinning of studios, transmitters, receivers, and tapes embedded within local, state, and global infrastructures.

Deurden sought to build in-person connections in addition to electronic ones. Through Duerden’s personal relationships with African intellectuals and the Transcription Centre’s location close to the British Museum, he sought to create a gathering place for writers, artists, and musicians that would be a kind of “‘Mbari Centre’ in London.”[31] He wrote in his first report to the CCF of his hopes that the “common-room . . . could grow into a sort of club for promoting the art of Africa and the study of Africa” (“Broadcasting in Africa,” 32). Such a club could also support radio production by ensuring that possible contributors and readers would be frequently accessible, and theatre workshops provided training to radio actors. While the Transcription Centre offices did not reach the heights of engagement and influence for which Duerden hoped, many of these plans were implemented throughout the organization’s existence (Moore, “The Transcription Centre,” 170). Duerden, then, was particularly interested in the infrastructure that made it possible to produce what he saw as radio programming of a “high standard” (“Broadcasting in Africa,” 24). This included not only the technical requirements of equipment and trained personnel but considerations of the way radio operates as a communications infrastructure. While many of the Transcription Centre’s radio’s connections were distant, asynchronous ones, Duerden’s emphasis on in-person proximity, whether that was at the Transcription Centre offices or by conducting interviews and making recordings in Africa, pair print and electronic cultures’ ability to connect across distance with oral cultures’ presence.

To pursue interconnectivity, the Transcription Centre’s programming was, appropriately enough, “insistently multivocal” (Bailkin, “The Sounds of Independence?,” 233). Literary radio is inherently multivocal: a single Africa Abroad episode can include multiple literary works written by one or more authors as well as introductory statements, interview questions and answers, and critical commentary created by Transcription Centre contributors, producers, and editors. The audience hears the varied content read by multiple voices that can include a separate reader, the presenter, narrator, or invited critic introducing and commenting on the piece, and, in the case of interviews, the author themselves. Jordanna Bailkin writes that “the theme of conversation was structurally and ideologically integral” to Africa Abroad, and even those literary programs that are not explicitly dialogues between individuals or about the conversation between cultures evidence a Bakhtinian heteroglossia (233).[32] The voice of the literary work, the commentator, and the author are all present, whether that is because the speakers are physically together recording a discussion or because a producer has included their works together on air.

Radio’s broadcast of the human voice and other aural cultural expressions is an example of what Ong terms “secondary orality.” Unlike the “primary orality” of cultures completely without alphabetic text, secondary orality describes the orality of sound technologies—“telephone, radio, television and various kinds of sound tape”—within societies in which print had already been established as the dominant mode of communication (Orality and Literacy, 11, 133). Ong argues that while this “new orality” is similar to primary orality “in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas,” secondary orality “is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print” (133–34). As a sound technology, radio is already a form of secondary orality; literary radio programming’s intermedial relationship with print literatures further reinforces the fact that this genre functions differently than Ong’s “primary orality.” The Transcription Centre’s literary radio programs not only show the prevalence of print within Anglophone African cultural production in their broadcast of previously published works, they intentionally reinforce the importance of print cultures in their promotion of books, print magazines, and anthologies. Duerden wrote that he sought to “make the radio programme a series of sound illustrations to the printed word.”[33] Conceiving of the radio program as made up of “sound illustrations” to existing texts assumes the primacy of print while imagining radio as able to use sound to engage a wider audience.

Because Duerden’s starting point was print, Duerden did not assume all African listeners would automatically be able to benefit from the Transcription Centre’s programs. Rather, Duerden argued that African listeners needed to be taught to listen properly to “serious” radio; learning to listen was part of a Cold War project (ways of thinking that did not disappear with the end of the Cold War) equating “Western” with “modern” (“Broadcasting in Africa,” 5).[34] In his 1961 report to CCF, he described social practices that he believed made certain types of listening difficult:

I suggest that the pattern of African family life is still inimical in many ways to listening that requires concentration. This is still true of the better-educated families despite the signs of a growth of an African bourgeoisie. It is difficult to sit for long periods in an African household without some kind of interruption by visitors and it would be extremely impolite not to give them your whole attention. In the middle of a Yoruba town the doors and windows are never closed and there is constant interruption by sounds coming in from the street outside and from the other houses packed densely round about. (5)

Duerden imagines “serious” listening, then, as an individualistic distraction-free experience akin to the act of reading within typographic culture’s emphasis on “modern individualism” (5; McLuhan, Gutenberg, 1). McLuhan argues that people from oral cultures could enter the electronic age more easily because they would not have to unlearn print culture’s obsolete ways of thought. Duerden’s report asserts that literary radio makes unique demands upon its listeners: the broadcasts are composed of complex pieces often first crafted for print, and they require listening without interruption at the time of broadcast because the radio is not a person with the ability to pause, repeat, or otherwise adjust to allow a newcomer to join the group. On the one hand, then, radio seems to eliminate distinctions between oral and print cultures because of the way it sends the voice through distance and allows access to print texts without literacy. On the other hand, it reinforces the imagined divide between orality and print if African audiences are imagined to be unsophisticated listeners in need of further education. Theorizing translations between oral, print, and broadcast forms cannot be divorced from the politics of the decolonization era. Transcription Centre programs explore the relationships between oral literature and print poetry, but writers’ emphasis on the ongoing relevance of orality challenge mid-century European and North American conceptions of a trajectory from orality to literacy within a Eurocentric narrative of civilizing processes.

The “Primitive” and the “Typographic” in J. P. Clark’s “Agbor Dancer”

Clark first published “Agbor Dancer” in 1959 in The Horn, the student magazine he founded at the University of Ibadan the year before.[35] The poem was later reprinted in Clark’s Poems (1962) and included in the anthology Poems from Black Africa (1963) edited by Langston Hughes.[36] Soon after the publication of Poems from Black Africa, Nkosi produced a program consisting of Nkosi’s own review, which included a reading of “Agbor Dancer,” and reviews by Clark and Frank Parkes.[37] All the reviewers, including Clark, critiqued Hughes for the preponderance of what they saw as negritude poetry in the volume. As a student and Horn editor in the late 1950s, Clark admired the Francophone negritude movement (the editorial in the first issue of Horn defines negritude positively as “that new burning consciousness of a common race and culture,” but Clark, with many Transcription Centre contributors, distanced themselves from negritude theories and literary works in the 1960s.[38]

Notwithstanding the fact that Nkosi praises “Agbor Dancer” in contrast to contemporary negritude poets in Hughes’ anthology, Clark’s poem has been read as a negritude-like reversal of Eurocentric conceptions of the “primitive” and the “modern.”[39] This is most evident in Clark’s eroticized description of a female dancer associated with the earth and the tribe which recalls negritude’s celebration of the “emotional and intuitive involvement” of oral societies (Finnegan, Literacy and Orality, 45n3).  “Agbor Dancer” contrasts the dancer’s embodied experience of the drums with the speaker’s intellectual and textual response; the speaker desires the woman as a representative of an idealized precolonial social order. Although the poem’s speaker experiences a gulf between himself and the dancer, the formal and contextual elements of the poem undo strict divisions between what McLuhan terms the “primitive” and the “typographic.” Ultimately, the poem—in print and broadcast form—belies claims of incommensurable difference between orality and literacy, sound and text.

The first stanza of “Agbor Dancer” describes the dancer’s connection to the music, the earth, and her community’s past (Clark, 97). The drums compel the dancer’s movement: “See her caught in the throb of a drum / Tippling from hide-brimmed stem / Down lineal veins to ancestral core” (97). The rhythm moves from the drum’s head (“hide-brimmed”) to “lineal veins” that reference physical attributes of the drum—the strings holding the skin taut and/or decorative carvings upon the drum shell—as well as the way the music enters the dancer’s blood. The last two lines of the stanza shift clearly to her eroticized body and describe “. . . her supple tan limbs / Like fresh foliage in the sun” (97). The “rhythm of her body,” Olabode Ibironke writes, “blends into that of the drums, and the space whose essential character it animates.”[40] The plant imagery (“stem,” “veins” [of leaves], “foliage”) organically connects both the drum and the dancer to the earth and community. The motif of the drum to represent African identity proliferated in the negritude period and persisted in post-negritude literature, partly because at this time “rhythm was closely associated with a racial or regional identity.”[41] These representations include celebratory reversals of colonial representations equating drums with savagery. Nkosi, for example, in the same review in which “Agbor Dancer” was read, praises Kwesi Brew’s poem “Ancestral Faces” which uses drums—“The Fibre of their souls and ours”—as a shorthand for ongoing cultural pride and heritage, what Nkosi describes in Proustian terms as “the modern African’s reverence and his remembrance of things past” (Nkosi, “Africa Abroad No. 40, 1; emphasis added).[42] While Brew’s poem suggests drums’ ongoing relevance, they are often portrayed as antimodern; drums and other aspects of African sound cultures reference a precolonial ideal state. Such celebrations of drums often maintain colonial associations with drums with archaic and even preverbal societies.[43]

The dancer in Clark’s poem, the metonymic figure of the “mother culture,” has a purely bodily response to drums and has no access to speech, let alone writing.[44] Nonetheless, her performance functions similarly to that of an oral storyteller who needs “the warm presence of an audience” (Okpewho, African Oral Literature, 42).[45] As Ibironke writes, “the performance of the dancer,” while nonverbal, is “traditionally part of orature” (Remapping African Literature, 211).[46] The relationship between the dancer and the drums that Clark’s speaker describes is the integrated relationship the ideal audience would have with the dancer within oral cultures. The experience of the dancer, “caught” in the drum beats, and the imagined ideal audience is kinetic, not linguistic; the dancer and audience could be read as members of what McLuhan terms “‘primitive’ or auditory communities” (McLuhan, Gutenburg Galaxy, 21). Ruth Finnegan criticizes media studies’ “special image of ‘primitive man,’” who is assumed to be “incapable of standing back in a detached fashion” (Literacy and Orality, 45).[47] McLuhan’s divide between oral and literate cultures paints such societies in Conradian terms of deepest darkness, denying rationality to peoples without writing: “[U]ntil WRITING was invented, we lived in acoustic space, where the Eskimo now lives: boundless, directionless, horizonless, the dark of the mind, the world of emotion, primordial intuition, terror.”[48] McLuhan described the transition from orality to literacy as “the basic metaphor with which the cycle of CIVILIZATION began, the step from the dark into the light of the mind” (“Five Sovereign Fingers,” 207). As Jonathan Sterne notes, McLuhan’s construction “denies coeval existence to different cultures. It transforms spatial differences into temporal differences” (“A Critique of Orality,” 220). Such assumptions echo “nineteenth-century evolutionists’ interpretations of human history” that, Kofi Awoonor writes, imagine that “the contemporary ‘primitive’ peoples, the modern peasant” are those “among whom can still be found the supposed traces of the earlier stages of unilinear human evolution” (The Breast of the Earth, 73). Aurality, Amanda Weidman writes, “has frequently been positioned in the realm of the premodern or the nonmodern—as that which escapes or somehow lies outside of modernity’s visually grounded regimes of knowledge-power.”[49] While the speaker of “Agbor Dancer” admires the dancer, he too places her forms of expression in the archaic past; the divide between her and the “modern” speaker is not just of experience but of epoch.

The speaker of “Agbor Dancer” is the rational, literate, male observer—McLuhan’s typographic man who is “aloof, detached, specialized and cut off . . . from the psychic and emotional unity possible in a more ‘oral’ culture” (Finnegan, Literacy and Orality, 30). He watches from a place of “double awareness,” describing the drum’s music, the dancer’s movement, and his own “alienation” from the experience (Irele, Introduction, xxxi; Izevbaye, “Poetry and Drama,” 153). In West African Poetry (1986), Robert Fraser includes “Agbor Dancer” as one of Clark’s poems about “the rediscovery of rural moeurs and customs by one temporarily removed from them,” but although he desires reintegration, the speaker of “Agbor Dancer” seems more than “temporarily” separated from such customs (West African Poetry, 85). The speaker yearns for connection to the community and the earth through the body of the woman and speculates as to whether he could join the dancer:

Could I, early sequestered from my tribe,

Free a lead-tethered scribe,

I would answer her communal call,

Lose myself in her warm caress (Clark, “Agbor Dancer,” 97)

This seems unlikely given the use of the conditional mood; the transition to literacy appears inevitable and irreversible as the speaker describes a “sense of cultural exile” and remains “lead-tethered” by the heavy burden of writing and all that it connotes, including colonial education and print culture.[50]

While Clark’s speaker is nostalgic for preliterate forms of expression and community, the formal and linguistic elements of the poem celebrate print as well as oral traditions.[51] In the Transcription Centre review, Nkosi praises Clark for being “modern without being sterile” and for an admirable use of “techniques he has absorbed from modern European poets” (“Africa Abroad No. 40,” 4). In Clark’s own classification of poetry from the literate and oral traditions, “Agbor Dancer” is clearly of the first type—poetry “set down by hand on paper, and directed at the eye that reads it.”[52] Critics have identified the influence of British romantic and modernist poets in “Agbor Dancer,” drawing parallels to Wordsworth’s “Highland Lass” in the speaker’s relationship to the dancer and to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” in Clark’s choice of “theme and even the alliterative pattern” (Fraser, West African Poetry, 179; Izevbaye, “Poetry and Drama,” 153). Abiola Irele compares the final lines of “Agbor Dancer” and W. B. Yeats’s “Among Schoolchildren,” while Dan Izevbaye reads the last lines as broadly Wordsworthian (Irele, Introduction, xxviii; Izavbaye, “Poetry and Drama,” 153). Throughout, the poem uses an elevated and Latinate vocabulary. The West African drum, for example, awakens a “descant,” a term for European Medieval and Renaissance counterpoint melody (Clark, “Agbor Dancer,” 97).

The poem appears, then, to describe a divide between primitive and typographic man, but the division between aural and embodied art, on the one hand, and “lead-tethered” print technology on the other is not as definitive as initially proposed. While Irele acknowledges “Agbor Dancer’s” thematic similarity to work of “the French-speaking negritude poets” in its idealization of precolonial cultures, he argues that “the interrogation of the final stanza does not dramatize a sense of conflict but underscores rather the affirmative insistence . . . upon the significance of the dance itself, its projection of the dynamic interaction of body and mind with the world of nature” (Introduction, xxviii ). The Nigerian poet and playwright Femi Osofisan describes how the drum itself often functions as a link between experimental “modern poets” and “the paradigmatic and synthetic structure of oral poetry.”[53] This synthesis between orality and print is also evident in the form of the poem. The speaker defines himself as set apart from the dancer through writing, but much of the poem’s technique depends upon sound. Romanus N. Egudu argues, “As the dancing girl performs her art to the rhythm of the drums, so does the reader follow with pleasure the music of the poem; and in fact both the girl and the reader become ‘entangled in the magic/maze of music.’”[54] Luke Eyoh notes the lack of criticism on the “phono stylistic” elements of Clark’s poetry and argues that “alliterative and fast rhythms” are integral to many of the poems in Poems, including “Agbor Dancer.” He also argues more broadly that “African poetry in English . . . is polymetric.”[55] The changing meters of “Agbor Dancer” correspond to the poem’s content: the first stanza’s meter especially evokes drum beats with the first and third lines’ repeating anapestic feet: “[in the THROB] [of a DRUM] . . . [lineal VEINS] [to anCES]tral . . . ” The second and fourth lines each end with three strong stresses: “HIDE-BRIMMED STEM” and “SUPple TAN LIMBS.” The variable meter of the first and second stanzas shifts in the third stanza toward more iambic feet, the most common metrical foot in English, at about the same place as the speaker begins referencing writing; line fourteen, for instance, which includes the phrase “for pen or tongue,” can be read as straight iambic tetrameter. The musicality of the metrical patterns is reinforced by the use of end-line rhymes and near-rhymes as well as alliteration and assonance.

It is not surprising that this poem emphasizes watching: according to Robert Wren, Clark was inspired by a photograph in Nigeria magazine.[56] Clark has elsewhere written poems inspired by personal and public photographs (“A photograph” and “A Photograph in the Observer”) that explore the relationships between the viewer, the photograph, and subject, and Izevbaye notes that Clark’s poetry was often inspired by a “concrete object” including visual art (“Poetry and Drama,” 157).[57] The periodical source material emphasizes Clark’s immersion in print, but also highlights the diversity of print forms: as an ekphrastic poem, “Agbor Dancer” restores music and movement to a still image.[58] The ekphrastic poem has been traditionally understood to bring kinetic and aural elements by “releas[ing] the narrative impulse” of visual art and “enabl[ing] the silent figures of graphic art to speak.”[59] If the speaker of “Agbor Dancer” is imagined to be looking at a photograph instead of watching the dance in person, the two figures are separated not only by sensibility but also by space and time. The speaker’s alienation is not only because of his educational experience but because he experiences the dance through the mediation of the still, silent photograph. Such mediation not only emphasizes distance but also allows the poem to recreate elements of aural performance and movement through the use of poetic devices. Carrie Noland argues that the poem as text is neither divorced from sound nor from community. Rather, “rhythm and tone both contribute to our sense that a human voice is being overheard. . . . to produce the illusion that one embodied being is being heard by another embodied being, that ‘human relatedness’ (Poirier) is occurring when we read a poem” (Voices of Negritude, 174). “Agbor Dancer,” as poetry, remediates not only the rhythm of the dance but also the embodied experience of oratory cultures.

The poem’s description of the drum’s effect on the dancer’s body also complicates a strict juxtaposition between the dancer and the speaker. The music travels “Tingling quick to her finger tips / And toes virginal habits long / Too atrophied for pen or tongue” (Clark, “Agbor Dancer,” 97). Her “virginal habits” are not those of speech. Instead, the drum beats awaken her body into dance. Parsing what “atrophied” signifies is not straightforward, however. The poem as a whole suggests that women are excluded from literacy and rationality by virtue of their gender, but if “virginal habits” are associated with the preverbal state, in what sense are these habits “atrophied”? Or is it her rationality that is atrophied through lack of use? While this interpretation would make sense given a gendered binary that associates masculinity with rationality and femininity with emotion, the grammar of these lines does not easily support this reading. Another possible interpretation is that the atrophied habits are oral traditions lost through colonialism and that these traditions cannot now be fully articulated by “pen or tongue.” While the first stanza suggests the dancer has unbroken access to precolonial traditions, this third stanza argues that the oral traditions do not persist unchanged. The dancer, the speaker, and Clark as poet can, however, remediate these forms in the present.

While “Agbor Dancer” initially seems to position orality in the past, the poem’s broadcast demonstrates orality’s ongoing relevance and challenges the way “the orality-literacy debate” has been read in ways that reinforce the “the temporal logics of North Atlantic modernity—which has simultaneously been a colonial modernity.”[60] As Finnegan writes, countering McLuhan, Ong, and Goody: “‘orality’ and ‘literacy’ are not two separate and independent things; nor (to put it more concretely) are oral and written modes two mutually exclusive and opposed processes for representing and communicating information” (Literacy and Orality, 175). Increasingly, Nathan Suhr-Sytsma notes in an analysis of Okigbo’s poetry, “the oral is no longer seen as a sphere wholly prior to or autonomous from written and printed texts” (Poetry, Print, 125). The poetic fusing of the aurality of drums with the speaker’s visual observance and the vocabulary, form, and allusions of print poetry gains resonance when taken from the print anthology and read on-air. The listener hears Clark’s words spoken aloud, Nkosi’s introductory statements about the poem, and Clark’s own reading of his review of Hughes’ anthology. Multiple voices are put in conversation within the single radio episode.

Radio operates like print in that “a displaced ‘voice’ is ‘multiplied throughout the world,’” but radio’s aspirations to use affective means to return the intimacy of the embodied experience through the broadcast voice in order to create community, sociability, and intimacy has also been noted in multiple contexts (Glissant, quoted in Noland, Voices of Negritude, 5). Jason Loviglio, for instance, describes how “radio voices” in the United States’ Golden Age of radio move “across the borders between the intimate worlds” and the “public world.”[61] Radio talk in particular, Paddy Scannell theorizes, “attempts to bridge the gap [between audience and broadcaster] by simulating co-presence.”[62] Throughout Africa, radio scholars have argued, radio’s ability to transmit the voice is valued because of the social significance of orality. Liz Gunner, for example, argues that the “oral space” that South African radio talk entered was “a structure with deep roots in African epistemologies.”[63] While the listener is separated from the oral event—can listen but not directly respond—the radio program brings oral elements of performance to the poem. Aural traditions cannot be fully accessed in unchanging form from the past, but the poem in print and in audio recording conserves them by remediating the song and the dance in the present moment. “Agbor Dancer” does not reference radio explicitly, but the poem comments on oral and print cultures within a mediascape increasingly dominated by sound media. Okigbo’s poem, “Lament of the Drums,” along with his discussion of the composition process, more explicitly theorizes the relationship between communication technologies—particularly between drums and print.

The Poetry of Talking Drums

“Lament of the Drums” integrates elements of various aural traditions including Akan drum poetry and Igbo dirge elements. In July 1965, the Ugandan playwright Robert Serumaga interviewed Okigbo, and the interview opened with Okigbo reading Part I of “Lament.” In the interview, both Serumaga and Okigbo refer to "African" rather than Akan or Igbo allusions (Serumaga describes the influence of “African ritual,” and Okigbo refers to “the modern African”).[64] Okigbo’s poem represents drum’s speech in written English, demonstrating the persistence of oral cultures’ aural traditions within modern life and print literature. Ben Obumselu recounts that reading J. H. Nketia’s essay on Akan poetry published in Black Orpheus “threw Okigbo into a fever of excitement,” and that he then wrote the first two parts of the poem closely following the form of the Akan drum prelude that Nketia described.[65] Nketia’s essay discusses elements of the “poetic tradition” that have “not been confined to the spoken voice” including the use of drums as “vehicles of literature.”[66] Diala argues that Okigbo’s use of “the idiom of drum poetry” reflects the value of drum poetry’s “abstract and arcane character” in Okigbo’s surrealist verse (“Okigbo’s Drum Elegies,” 96). “Lament” epitomizes Okigbo’s synthesis of oral and print literature, what Okigbo describes in the interview as the influence of “the oral tradition in African poetry” (interview by Serumaga, III).

In his essay for Black Orpheus, Nketia describes how in the Akan drum prelude or “the Awakening ‘Anyaneanyane’” the drummer “addresses in turn the components of the drum—the wood of the drum, the drum pegs, strings, the animal that provides the hide of the drum: the elephant or the duyker” (Nketia, 22). The first part of “Lament” that Okigbo read on Africa Abroad enacts this address:

Lion-hearted cedar forest, gonads for our thunder

If you are very far away we are calling you

Give us our hollow heads of long drums. . . (Okigbo, “Lament,” Cultural Events in Africa, I)

Unlike the drums of Clark’s “Agbor Dancer,” the message of Okigbo’s talking drums is not primarily musical but rather “linguistic” (Finnegan, Oral Literature, 467).[67] Like Clark’s poem, which was inspired by a photograph, “Lament” is not a direct transcription of oral forms; rather, it is a poetic version of sound phenomena already “entextualiz[ed]” in Nketia’s essay.[68] In the ways print periodicals inspire these poems, both “Agbor Dancer” and “Lament” exemplify some of the ways postcolonial Nigerian poets’ interest in orality, as Suhr-Sytsma argues, “remained mediated by modern conditions, including print culture, not wholly of local making.”[69]

Okigbo as a poet is not Clark’s “lead-tethered” scribe; while he uses oral traditions, his “leaning is not towards postcolonial nativism in which the traditional African world is presented as a ‘closed’ refuge” (Clark, “Agbor Dancer,” 97).[70] Rather, Okigbo uses that drum form in a “politically topical” poem: “Lament” was, Okigbo writes, “inspired by the events of the day . . . by the imprisonment of Obafemi Awolowo, and the tragic death of his eldest son” (Suhr-Sytsma, “Christopher Okigbo,” 48).[71] Similarly, Serumaga’s introduction to the Okigbo segment on some of the broadcast versions of Africa Abroad emphasizes that Okigbo’s use of oral sources is paired with his experiential knowledge of the contemporary world.[72] His introduction asserts that oral cultures are not only part of West Africa’s past but are part of contemporary poetry, and in the following interview, Okigbo asserts that in his work the influence of “various literatures and cultures” “have become assimilated into an integral whole” (Interview by Serumaga, Cultural Events in Africa, III). He states:

In fact, I think that all we hear nowadays of men-of-two-worlds is a lot of nonsense. I belong, integrally, to my own society just as, I believe, I belong also integrally to other societies than my own. The truth is that the modern African is no longer a product of an entirely indigenous culture. The modern sensibility, which the modern African poet is trying to express, is by its very nature complex; and it has complex values, some of which are indigenous, some exotic, some traditional, some modern. (II)

For Okigbo, the poet and the poem should be viewed as a form of synthesis rather than exemplifying a tension between “primitive” and “typographic” cultures.

Okigbo’s account of composing the poem is one of remediation and performance. After the reading, Serumaga asks “Chris; is that a poem you wrote?” (I). This is a peculiar question to ask a poet in an interview about his work, and there is a slight emphasis in the audio recording on “wrote” suggesting that writing might not be the appropriate characterization of how this poem came to be.[73] The sentence also implies there is some question about whether Okigbo is the author. Okigbo responds in the negative:

Well, I really don’t think I can claim to have written it. All I did was to create the drums, and the drums said what they liked. Personally I don’t believe that I am capable of saying what the drums have said in that first part. It’s only the long funeral drums that are capable of saying it and they are capable of saying it only at that moment. So I don’t think that I can claim to have written the poem; all I did was to cover the drums, and to create the situation in which the drums spoke what they spoke. (Interview by Serumaga, Cultural Events in Africa, II)

While Nketia’s description of the Anyaneanyane or Awakening suggests the drummer uses the drums to speak to the drum components, Okigbo states that it is “the drums invoking the various elements from which they are made” (III).  For Okigbo, the “drums spoke”: the communicative medium creates its own content. Like a drum maker who covers the drum body with hide for the drum head, Okigbo remediates the drums by creating or covering the drums in print. Okigbo’s response also emphasizes the drums’ speech as contextualized in a given moment, similar to how Clark’s dancer belongs to a discrete time and place. Nketia writes that drumming exists within an embedded social context that governs “style, form, subject matter and meaning” (“Akan Poetry,” 26).[74] Okigbo’s temporality—“only at that moment”—begs the question of whether the drums spoke once in the creation of the poem (in this case, are the later readings echoes?) or if Okigbo’s past tense (“spoke”) refers to a more immediate past tense: that the drums speak when the poem is read, and that they are now, in the later discussion of the poem, silent. In either case, the poem retains some of performance’s ephemerality.

Drums’ aurality and the history of drum performance within oral communities leads Ong to argue that African talking drums are the “paradigm of primary orality.”[75] Ong uses English missionary J. F. Carrington’s monograph The Talking Drums of Africa (1949) to support his conclusions about the incommensurability between oral and print communities.[76] Ong argues:

it appears that African drum talk is an important variant of specifically oral communication not merely in the obvious sense that it operates in a world of sound but more particularly in the deeper sense that it manifests and even exaggerates many features which are distinctive of primary orality (orality untouched by writing or print) as compared with written and printed communication. Drum talk makes extraordinarily conspicuous use of typical oral strategies for gathering, storing, retrieving, and communicating knowledge . . . (“Talking Drums,” 426)

As he later argued famously in Orality and Literacy (1982), Ong sees the media transition from orality to print as a change in “human consciousness,” not just a change in neutral communication tools (Orality and Literacy, 77). For Ong, “the entire oral noetic world” is fundamentally different than the print noetic world because he believed sound to be fundamentally different from sight (24). Sterne writes that “Ong causally derived most of the salient features of oral culture from the ephemeral character of sound. When sound is present, it is already going out of existence. The rest were derived from hearing’s ability to detect interiority without violating it” (Sterne, “A Critique of Orality,” 211). Because he believed orality and print led to different forms of thought and expression, Ong argues that “the drums or slit-gongs appear to move thought and communication in the opposite direction from writing, since, instead of reducing the use of typical oral noetic and expressive strategies, they intensify their use” (“Talking Drums,” 426). Ong makes a strong distinction between oral community’s ways of knowing (such as “formulaic expression” and “standardization”) that later critics have rejected as oversimplifications (426; see Sterne, “A Critique of Orality,” 212–13).

Given his association of drums with “the oral world,” Ong argues that “writing gradually reduces and finally more or less eliminates them” (“Talking Drums,” 426). McLuhan and Ong did not believe that orality per se was a primitivism to be rejected and denigrated. McLuhan described the electronic age as a return to “acoustic space” and Ong developed the idea of secondary orality to analyze the persistence and value of orality in the twentieth century (“Five Sovereign Fingers,” 207). Both theories, however, rely upon the fundamental contrast between orality and literacy, supported by their interpretations of anthropological accounts of oral cultures that have since been challenged. Moreover, their arguments assume a developmental narrative from orality to print; the “narratives of new media” that Alan Liu characterizes as “[implicit] metanarratives of modernization.”[77] While Nketia acknowledges that changing technology alters the role of drums, his conclusions differ significantly from Ong’s. Nketia differentiates between drums’ usage for “announcements” to “give information,” a role that he concludes will become obsolete “in view of the radio, the newspaper and other modern means of communication,” and drums as “vehicles of literature” in which their relevance persists (“Akan Poetry,” 22). Okigbo, though a print poet, also demonstrated the ongoing role of drums within Nigerian literature.

Okigbo, instead of portraying an incommensurable difference between drums and print forms, imagines drums and print in multiple forms. While drums can operate within oral society in a performance context in which the performer and audience are together in space and time (as in “Agbor Dancer”), talking drums are also historically a “medium for mass communication.”[78] Carrington reported that individual West African talking drums can transmit messages up to seven miles, and messages can be retransmitted within the social and linguistic limits of the community.[79] In Part II of “Lament,” not read on this episode of Africa Abroad, the description of the drums highlights their role as communications technology (similar to McLuhan’s media as an “extension of man”): “Liquid messengers of blood, / Like urgent telegrams.”[80] Eric Falci writes that “the beating of drums becomes the beating of blood becomes the (much lighter) ‘beating’ of the telegraph machine.”[81] The description imagines drums alternately in embodied terms and as external electronic tools. In a separate interview also conducted in 1965, Okigbo explicitly argues that print operates like talking drums:

I think that when a word is committed to print it develops legs, wings even, and goes anywhere it wants to go. It is the same as a talking drum. You may want to speak to someone in a different village; when you play the drum and give him the message, he is not the only one who is listening to it. Anybody who is awake at the time listens to it. And those who wish to take the message will take it. I think the poem has this sort of existence, quite apart from the author.[82]

The talking drum, like print, allows the word to be “re-embedded in a new context” apart from the authors’ intention and control (Barber, Anthropology of Texts, 23).[83] The drum, again like print, Meki Nzewi, Israel Anyahuru, and Tom Ohiaraumunna argue, “carries a more neutral and commanding authority” than the human voice.[84] Just as “Lament” shows that oral cultural forms are not relegated to the past, ways of thinking often associated with print are not exclusive to postindustrial modernity. Okigbo’s characterization of print, here, is akin to Ong’s in that “written discourse has been detached from its author,” but this use of language is not something new to members of West African oral communities; rather, it is a long-established part of West African cultures (Orality and Literacy, 77).[85]

As a sound technology, radio has often been compared to drums. Anthropologist Brian Larkin recounts that some Islamic leaders in Northern Nigerian argued that radio was, “like talking drums,” “a neutral medium for the transmission of information,” and Anyidoho notes that the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation's logo includes two talking drums (Larkin, Signal and Noise 55; Anyidoho, “National Identity,” 12). Like the talking drum, print, and the telegraph, radio also separates the voice from the body and sends sound farther than the human voice. The tapes of Okigbo’s recorded interview travel far from the writer and producer, like Okigbo’s written word or the sound of the talking drums, and are broadcast in new contexts: the Africa Abroad program was aired between programming that the Transcription Centre program had no control over and broadcast to the individual listener’s home or portable transistor radio.

As an example of “secondary orality,” the radio broadcast of “Lament” also shares characteristics with oral literature spoken in front of an in-person audience. It is an auditory experience, not a visual one, and while the material tape recording is less ephemeral than the spoken word, the experience remains ephemeral for the radio audience in this period before inexpensive radio cassette recorders (the stations were also instructed to wipe the tapes for copyright reasons). Serumaga’s broadcast introduction calls attention to sound and listening in ways that the version revised for print publication in Cultural Events in Africa does not, suggesting an awareness of radio as an aural medium. Okigbo’s interview was produced as part of an episode that includes sections devoted to South African jazz and Zulu songs. In the broadcast, Serumaga used the transition to Okigbo’s segment to highlight the relationship between music and poetry and discussed the influence of European music on Okigbo’s poetry, something Okigbo had discussed in previous interviews on Africa Abroad in which he described his experience composing music.[86] Okigbo was influenced by a wide variety of musical traditions, including classical European composers, and Obumselu argues that in the early 1960s Okigbo saw his poetry in terms of “symphonic structure” (“Cambridge House,” 5).[87] In both broadcast and print versions, Serumaga describes the experience of reading Okigbo’s poetry as “eavesdropping on a private conversation” and states that the reader’s “soul . . . never fails to respond to the music” (Cultural Events in Africa, I). If even readers are described as listeners, radio listeners may be uniquely able to access the poem’s musicality when read by Okigbo himself. The introduction asserts that orality is not only something of the past, but is part of contemporary poetry that nonetheless can evoke a sense of “secret ritual” (I). Serumaga’s framing reinforces the content of Okigbo’s interview and “Lament” which explore the theory and practice of synthesizing aural and print forms.

Throughout the twentieth century, European and North American media scholars frequently cite Western studies of African oral societies to support various theories of media transition. At the same time, African writers and critics explore the ongoing relevance of oral forms in contemporary society and in African literatures. Clark’s and Okigbo’s broadcast poetry asserts, however, that the aural forms such as the West African drum do not exist in McLuhan’s “ancient past”: poetry—spoken, broadcast, published poetry—draws on oral cultures that predate colonialism while also being resolutely of the twentieth century in its poetic form and its use of radio as a medium. While McLuhan posits radio as a tribal drum within a Eurocentric ethnographic model, Clark, Okigbo, and these Transcription Centre programs, rejecting the inherent racism of this model, offer another theory of media, literature, and society in which the medium matters but a singular media form does not shape a given society; rather, multiple media forms with unique but not determinative effects interact at a given historical moment.


The research for this paper was funded in part through a Harry Ransom Center Dissertation fellowship sponsored by the Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation / The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies. I am grateful for the assistance from the archivists at the Harry Ransom Center and the librarians at the Archives of Traditional Music, Indiana University. Nathan Suhr-Sytsma, Thomas Davis, Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́, and Sara Cooper provided valuable insights in conversations about poetry and orality and in their feedback on earlier drafts. In this essay, I have quoted from reports written by Dennis Duerden by permission of Katharyn Owen and transcriptions of radio transmissions with Lewis Nkosi by permission of Astrid Starck-Adler.

[1] Later known as J. P. Clark-Bekederemo, the poet published and broadcast as John Pepper Clark and J. P. Clark from the early 1960s until 1985.

[2] Lewis Nkosi, “Africa Abroad, No. 40,” recorded June 1, 1963, Transcription Centre Records (TCR), Harry Ransom Centre (HRC), Folder 5.4, 4.

[3] J. P. Clark, “Agbor Dancer,” in Poems from Black Africa, ed. Langston Hughes, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), 97.

[4] Liz Gunner, “Africa and Orality,” in The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature, Vol. 1, ed. Abiola Irele and Simon Gikandi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1–18, 1; Sydney W. Head, preface to Broadcasting in Africa (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1974), 3.

[5] Donald R. Browne, “International Broadcasts to African Audiences,” in Broadcasting in Africa, 175–200, 177.

[6] Liz Gunner, Dina Ligaga, and Dumisani Moyo, introduction to Radio in Africa: Publics, Cultures, Communities, ed. Liz Gunner and Dina Ligaga (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2011), 6). See Charles Amour, “The BBC and the Development of Broadcasting in British Colonial Africa 1946–1956,” African Affairs 83, no. 332 (1984): 359–402.

[7] Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 2.

[8] Jordanna Bailkin, “The Sounds of Independence?: Lessons from Africa and Beyond at the Transcription Centre Archive,” History Workshop Journal 78 (2014): 229–45, 234.

[9] Isidore Okpewho, African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 127

[10] My focus in this article is on Anglophone Nigerian poetry, but drums play a significant role in poetry across the continent. Drums feature prominently in the Francophone negritude poets: it is commonly accepted, Bâ writes in The Concept of Negritude in the Poetry of Leopold Sedar Senghor, that "the rhythm of Senghor’s poetry is the rhythm of the tom-tom" (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 127. In “National Identity and the Language of Metaphor,” Kofi Anyidoho argues that for Ghanaian and "other African heritage literatures," drums operate "as a principle model for artistic communication" (FonTomFrom: Contemporary Ghanaian Literature, Theatre and Film, ed. Kofi Anyidoho and James Gibbs [Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000], 13). See Julie Huntington, Sounding Off: Rhythm, Music and Identity in West African and Caribbean Francophone Novels (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2009) for analysis of drums in Francophone prose.

[11] Eric Havelock, The Muse Learns to Write (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press 1986), 25.

[12] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York: Signet, 1964), 19.

[13] Marshall McLuhan, Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), 43, 175; See also Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge, 2002).

[14] D. C. Osadebay, E. L. Lasebikan and J. H. Nketia, “West African Voices,” African Affairs 48, no. 191 (1949): 151–58, 156. Many critics, as I discuss below, include drums as part of oral cultures, especially when analyzing talking drums. Kwesi Yankah, conversely, argues for the value of a separate designation for aural literature in “Voicing and Drumming the Poetry of Praise: The Case for Aural Literature,” Interdisciplinary Dimensions of African Literature: Annual Selected Papers of the ALA, ed. Kofi Anyidoho (Washington, DC: African Literature Association and Three Continents Press, 1985), 137–53, 137.

[15] Jonathan Sterne, “The Theology of Sound: A Critique of Orality,” Canadian Journal of Communication 36, no. 2 (2011): 207–25, 212.

[16] Ruth Finnegan, Literacy and Orality (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1988), 11.

[17] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).

[18] Jemie Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemi, and Ihechukwu Madubuike, Toward the Decolonization of African Literature (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1983), 168.

[19] As Debra Rae Cohen and Michael Coyle write of intermediality and radio audiences, it is important to “recognize the broadcast as one small part of the ongoing circulation, recirculation, and remediation of data” (“Introduction,” Modernist Cultures 10, no. 1 [2015]: 1–5, 3).

[20] While Africa Abroad programs discuss Francophone writing and included ethnomusicological recordings in various African languages, the programs are predominantly in English and focus on Anglophone writers, reinforcing problematic assumptions that "modern" African writing was happening in European languages. Apart from Africa Abroad, the Transcription Centre also produced a few separate radio series in Hausa and Swahili, but these series have not received the same attention as the Transcription Centre’s Anglophone output. For discussion of a wider range of African language radio, see Gunner, Ligaga, and Moyo, Radio in Africa.

[21] Lindy Stiebel and Liz Gunner, Still Beating the Drum: Critical Perspectives on Lewis Nkosi (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), xxi.

[22] Paul Gready, “The Sophiatown Writers of the Fifties: The Unreal Reality of Their World,” Journal of Southern African Studies 16, no. 1 (1990): 139–64, 145. Drum’s title, originally African Drum, is one example among many titles emphasizing the association between drums and African culture; in literary studies see, among others, the poetry anthology Drum Beat (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1967); Margaret Laurence's Long Drums and Cannons (London: Macmillan, 1968); Bernth Lindfors' Long Drums and Canons (Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1995); and Femi Osofisan, The Nostalgic Drum (Trenton, NJ; Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press, 1975).

[23] Michael Titlestad, “Jazz Discourse and Black South African Modernity, with Special Reference to ‘Matshikese,’" American Ethnologist 32, no. 2 (2005): 210–221, 214.

[24] Gerald Moore, “The Transcription Centre in the Sixties: Navigating in Narrow Seas,” Research in African Literatures 33, no. 3 (2002): 167–81, 168.

[25] Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, (New York: The New Press, 2013), 3–4. Also see Greg Barnhisel, Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

[26] Peter Benson, Black Orpheus, Transition, and Modern Cultural Awakening in Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 163.

[27] Peter Kalliney, “Modernism, African Literature, and the Cold War,” Modern Language Quarterly 76, no. 3 (2015): 333–68, 353. Olabode Ibironke criticized recent studies of the CCF and African literature for perpetuating the idea that African cultural production only developed through Western intervention in a talk given at the 2019 Modern Language Association Annual Convention and the 45th Annual Meeting of the African Literature Association. In analyzing the Transcription Centre, I am not seeking to prioritize genealogies of African cultural production that center European and North American institutions, but to consider the Transcription Centre as a site that aired work by a large number of postcolonial African writers where African producers and writers such as Lewis Nkosi and Robert Serumaga held decision-making roles in using radio as a medium.

[28] Nathan Suhr-Sytsma, “Ibadan Modernism: Poetry and the Literary Present in Mid-Century Nigeria,” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 48, no. 1 (2013): 41–59, 55.

[29] “Report of Transcription Centre Position, March 1966.” TCR, HRC, Folder 24.11, 2.

[30] Dennis Duerden, “Broadcasting in Africa: A Report Prepared for the Congress for Cultural Freedom,” September 1961. TCR, HRC, Folder 21.1, 31.

[31] Suhr-Sytsma, Poetry, Print, and the Making of Postcolonial Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 67.

[32] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Michael Holquist, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 263.

[33] Duerden, Untitled Report to Farfield Foundation, September 1966. TCR, HRC, Folder 24.11, 4.

[34] For an alternate perspective, see Rosalynde Ainslie who argues that because of the importance of radio to deliver news and education, “African villagers . . . listen with an attention almost forgotten in Europe,” in The Press in Africa (New York: Walker and Company, 1966): 153.

[35] J. P. Clark, “Agbor Dancer,” The Horn 3, no. 1 (1959): 6. Cited in Robert Fraser, West African Poetry: A Critical History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 85.

[36] Hughes fostered relationships with African writers throughout this era; his relationship with South African writers began when he started judging short story competitions for Drum in 1953. Shane Graham, "Cultural Exchange in a Black Atlantic Web: South African Literature, Langston Hughes, and Negritude," Twentieth-Century Literature 60, no. 4 (2014): 481–512, 485.

[37] As producer, Nkosi planned programs, facilitated contributor participation, and oversaw the final editing; in this program reviewing Poems from Black Africa he also wrote and recorded a large section. I have only been able to locate the final transcription of the program as a whole; there do not appear to be surviving notes or earlier drafts, so little is known about the process of creating this specific program.

[38] Quoted in W. H. Stevenson, "The Horn: What It Was and What It Did," Research in African Literatures 6, no. 1 (1975): 5–31, 17. Such critiques of negritude sometimes use Cold War rhetoric: Nkosi, for example, argues that the Ghanaian magazine Okyeame displays a commitment to “an image of traditional Africa” that “may be as crippling to young writers as the high-handed dictates of a cultural commissar in a communist country” (Draft, n.d., TCR, HRC, Folder 8.5, 7). Wole Soyinka, whose work was often featured on Africa Abroad, was one of the most vocal critics of negritude at this time.

[39] O. R. Dathorne, African Literature in the Twentieth Century (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975), 197; Irele, introduction to Collected Poems, 1958–1988, by J .P. Clark (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1991), xxviii.

[40] Olabode Ibironke, Remapping African Literature (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 212.

[41] Carrie Noland, Voices of Negritude in Modernist Print (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 135.

[42] Kwesi Brew, “Ancestral Faces,” in Poems of Black Africa, ed. Wole Soyinka, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 43

[43] For example, Irele concludes that within Things Fall Apart the drums “manifest a vitalism inherent in and interwoven with the community’s organic mode of existence,” and he acknowledges that “[t]he omnipresence of the drum in Achebe’s image of Igbo tribal life seems at times on the verge of betraying him into the kind of unmediated stereotyping of the African by Western writers” (Abiola Irele, “Cultural Memory in Things Fall Apart,” Things Fall Apart: Norton Critical Edition, ed. Abiola Irele [New York: Norton, 2009], 453–91, 459).

[44] Dan Izevbaye, “The Poetry and Drama of John Pepper Clark,” in Introduction to Nigerian Literature, ed. Bruce Alvin King, (Lagos: University of Lagos, 1971), 152–72, 154. The dance is an “intricate pattern” (Clark, “Agbor Dancer,” 97), but the poem does not seem to consider the dance a form of language, unlike Meki Nzewi, Israel Anyahuru, and Tom Ohiaraumunna’s argument that “most African traditional dances have underlying lingual texts” and that “[d]ance could be visual expression of a spoken language in the same way as drumming is sometimes conceived as phonic-texting of spoken language” (Meki Nzewi, Israel Anyahuru, and Tom Ohiaraumunna, “Beyond Song Texts—The Lingual Fundamentals of African Drum Music,” Research in African Literatures, 32, no. 2 [2001]: 90–104, 100).

[45] See Kofi Awoonor, The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture, and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara (Essex, UK: Anchor, 1975), 69.

[46] Clark's edition of The Ozidi Saga (1977), for which he recorded source material in 1963, demonstrates Clark's awareness of the importance of embodied context for oral narrative. In his edition, Clark preserved references to the geopolitical context and the relationship between the artist and the audience (Okpewho, 300).

[47] Peter Howarth writes that Ong’s understanding of orality’s communal setting results in imagining the oral performer as incapable of extensive self-reflection. (see Peter Howarth, The Poetry Circuit [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022]).

[48] Marshall McLuhan, “Five Sovereign Fingers Taxed the Breath,” in Explorations in Communication, ed. McLuhan and Edmund Carpenter (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1960), 207–208, 207. “Five Sovereign Fingers Taxed the Breath” was published earlier in Explorations 4 (1955). “Eskimo” has been identified as a derogative term by indigenous Arctic peoples. In Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan draws from colonialist scientific accounts of African societies including work by J.C. Carothers and John Wilson (18n7).

[49] Amanda Weidman, “Echo and Anthem: Representing Sound, Music, and Difference in Two Colonial Modern Novels,” in Audible Empire: Music, Global Politics, Critique, ed. Ronald Radano and Tejumola Olaniyan, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 314–33, 316.

[50] Dan Izevbaye, “J. P. Clark-Bekederemo and the Ijo Literary Tradition,” Research in African Literatures 25, no. 1 (1994): 1–21, 2. Also see John Povey, “‘Two Hands a Man Has’: The Poetry of J. P. Clark,” African Literature Today 1, no. 1 (1968): 36–47, 42.

[51] The speaker’s position here should not be simply equated with the poet’s; Clark’s poems conceive of the poet’s relation to oral traditions in various ways (see Izevbaye, “The Poetry and Drama of John Pepper Clark”).

[52] J. P. Clark “Another Kind of Poetry” in Transition 25 (1966), 17–22, 17.

[53] Femi Osofisan, The Nostalgic Drum, (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2001), 314.

[54] Romanus Egudu, Four Modern West African Poets, (New York: NOK Publishers, 1977), 34.

[55] Luke Eyoh, “African Musical Rhythm and Poetic Imagination: A Phono Stylistic Interpretation of Clark-Bekederemo's ‘Return of the Fishermen,’” Research in African Literatures 32, no. 2 (2001): 105–18, 106, 110–11, 109.

[56] Robert Wren, “J. P. Clark (6 April 1935-).” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers: First Series, ed. Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander (Detroit, MI: Gale, 1992), 116. I have not been able to locate a relevant photograph in Nigeria that Clark would have seen there before publishing “Agbor Dancer” in 1959. Ulli Beier’s “Western Ibo dancer, Agbor” was published in Nigeria’s special independence issue (October, 1960). Clark’s “Agbor Dancer” was reprinted in the same issue.

[57] See Suhr-Sytsma, Poetry, Print, 66.

[58] Also see another of Clark’s ekphrastic poems, “The Imprisonment of Obatala,” which is based in part on Susanne Wenger’s painting.

[59] James A. W. Heffernan, "Ekphrasis and Representation," New Literary History 22, no. 2 (1991): 297–316, 304.

[60] Raka Shome, “When Postcolonial Studies Meets Media Studies,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 33, no. 3 (2016): 245–63, 246; Daniela Merolla. “Introduction: Orality and Technauriture of African Literatures,” Tydskrif vir Letterkunde 51, no. 1 (2014): 80–88, 82.

[61] Jason Loviglio, Radio’s Intimate Public: Network Broadcasting and Mass-Mediated Democracy, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), xvi.

[62] Paddy Scannell, introduction to Broadcast Talk, ed. Paddy Scannell (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1991), 2.

[63] Liz Gunner, Radio Soundings: South Africa and the Black Modern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 103.

[64] Christopher Okigbo, interview by Robert Serumaga, Cultural Events in Africa, The Transcription Centre, no. 8, July 1965, I, II. Multiple versions of this interview exist; I usually cite from the version published in Cultural Events in Africa, which, apart from changes to Serumaga’s introduction, is the most consistent with the scripts and transcriptions of the Africa Abroad broadcast held in the Transcription Centre Records at the Harry Ransom Center. The version of the transcription held at Indiana University (which is close to the audio recording also held in this collection) is closer to the version published in African Writers Talking. There were likely two broadcast versions, as Transcription Centre material was often repackaged in different ways, i. e, a stand-alone interview and an interview as part of a magazine program. It is likely impossible to determine which listeners would have heard which version, as the broadcasting of these programs was decentralized.

[65] Obumselu, quoted in Isidore Diala, “Okigbo’s Drum Elegies,” Research in African Literatures 46 no. 3 (2015): 85–111, 94; Ben Obumselu, “Cambridge House, Ibadan, 1962–66: Politics and Poetics in Okigbo’s Last Years,” Research in African Literatures 41, no. 2 (2010): 1–18, 11.

[66] J. H. Nketia, Akan Poetry,” Black Orpheus 3 (1958): 5–28, 22.

[67] Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature (Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2012), 467

[68] Karin Barber, The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 22. Barber quotes Silverstein and Urban’s Natural Histories of Discourse: “Entextualization is the ‘process of rendering a given instance of discourse as text, detachable from its local context’” (22).

[69] Nathan Suhr-Sytsma, “Christopher Okigbo, Print, and the Poetry of Postcolonial Modernity,” Research in African Literatures, 43, no. 2 (2012): 40–62, 42. In addition to Suhr-Sytsma’s piece, see Obi Nwakanma on the publication history of “Lament of the Drums” (Christopher Okigbo 1930–67: Thirsting for Sunlight [Oxford, UK: James Currey, 2010]).

[70] Maik Nwosu, “Christopher Okigbo and the Postcolonial Market of Memories,” Research in African Literatures 38, no. 4 (2007): 70–86, 76.

[71] Christopher Okigbo, introduction to Labyrinths With Path of Thunder (New York: Africana Pub. Corp., 1971), xii.

[72] Robert Serumaga, “Africa Abroad, No. 25 (Half-hour edition),” TCR, HRC, Folder 5.7, 3; Howarth argues that Langston Hughes’ poetry events in the 1960s also explored the modernity of oral performance (see The Poetry Circuit).

[73] Okigbo, Interview by Robert Serumaga. “Africa Abroad, No. 25.” ATL, item 7550, tr. 1, EC 7, The Duerden Collection, Archives of Traditional Music, Indiana University. Audio Recording.

[74] See Diala, “Okigbo’s Drum Elegies,” 94.

[75] Walter J. Ong, “African Talking Drums and Oral Noetics,” New Literary History 8, no. 3 (1977): 411–29, 413.

[76] Ong also references American anthropologist Theodore Sterne and French colonial administrator Pierre Alexandre’s work on drum languages.

[77] Alan Liu, Friending the Past: The Sense of History in the Digital Age (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 42.

[78] Meki Nzewi, “Traditional Strategies for Mass Communication: The Centrality of Igbo Music,” Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology (Los Angeles: UCLA Department of Musicology, 1984), 319–38, 319.

[79] John Carrington, Talking Drums of Africa (Westport, CT: The Carey Kingsgate Press, 1949), 29–30.

[80] Okigbo, “Lament of the Drums,” in Labyrinths, 45–50, 46.

[81] Eric Falci, The Cambridge Introduction to British Poetry, 1945–2010 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015): 64.

[82] Christopher Okigbo, “Interview with Christopher Okigbo, 1965,” interview by Marjory Whitelaw, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 5, no. 1 (1970): 28–37, 34.

[83] Finnegan writes that “[i]n a sense drum language fulfils many of the functions of writing, in a form, furthermore, better suited to tonal languages than an alphabetical script” (Oral Literature, 469-70); also see Sterne, “A Critique of Orality,” 221.

[84] Meki Nzewi, Israel Anyahuru, and Tom Ohiaraumunna, “Beyond Song Texts—The Lingual Fundamentals of African Drum Music,” Research in African Literatures 32, no. 2 (2001): 90–104, 92.

[85] See Nzewi, “Traditional Strategies,” 331.

[86] African Writers Talking, (New York: Africana Publishing Corporation, 1972), 136.

[87] Festivals also provided the opportunity for oral performance. African Writers Talking notes that “Lament” was featured at a poetry reading at the 1965 Commonwealth Arts Festival (African Writers Talking, 143).