Secular Devotion, By Timothy Brennan

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The Independent Culture

For a loosely linked set of essays on popular music in Africa and the Americas, this book makes some very big and interesting claims. Starting with the title: Timothy Brennan wants to argue that secular devotion is "the resilience in contemporary popular music of African religious elements". The centrality of music to African religious ritual and its vital interplay between performers and listeners remain encoded in the rhythms and forms of music across the Americas – from son to soul to salsa, from mambo to meringue, from jazz to rap. Indeed, Brennan argues that popular music exists "as an underground religion that found its cathedrals in the communal sites of dancehalls, ballrooms, and the street, publicly sharing an agenda of ideas... animism, polytheism, political satire, transcendence through sex".

If this were not a big enough set of claims, Brennan adds two more. First, the default political and social outlook of Afro-Latino and African-American music is, by virtue of the grim history of slavery, "antagonistic to the market". Second, given that issues of race and exclusion have been central to the moral-political narratives of the US, Cuba and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, this is a musical culture imbued with an ethical and political dimension.

I am sympathetic to all these arguments. I am ready to explore them, though I would need a lot of convincing about the intrinsically anti-market disposition of Afro-Latin musical cultures; and I would need to see a lot of carefully researched history of African musical and religious cultures and their transformation into popular music. However, this is not what is on offer in Secular Devotion. I was ready for the concept album of all time but what I got was a compilation of off-cuts and experiments.

Not that there aren't some good tunes. The essay on "imperial jazz" begins as a nicely argued challenge to the American national mythology of jazz. In almost all mainstream accounts, the origins of jazz are squarely and solely placed within the US itself; a matter, rarely, on which black and white American intellectuals concur.

However, Brennan finds innumerable links between Latino music and jazz. Musically, he argues for direct lineage from the danzas composed by Cuban Ignacio Cervantes and Scott Joplin's ragtimes. Many members of Buddy Bolden first jazz combo had served with the US Army in Cuba, often honing their skills in the syncopated discipline of military bands. In his memoirs, WC Handy, "Father of the Blues", recalled the rhythms of the back streets of Havana.

But Brennan just can't stay in the same groove. From here, we are launched into riffs on the use of heavy metal by US tank crews, the musical cul-de-sac of the jazz solo, the relationship between Cuban son and jazz rhythms. I was meant to be dazzled but I was just confused. Brennan's essay on world music treads familiar ground. He castigates the crudities of a category invented by the musical conglomerates and commentators of the North. In fact, the only truly world musics are those of the elites – jazz and European classical music.

World music, to judge from store racks, rough guides and iTunes genres, includes a bewildering range of forms – the devotional Qawwali music of Pakistan, Angelique Kidjo's Americanised Benin rock, Albanian epic song. As Brennan puts it, "this is not world music, but rather local and regional music that either has not travelled well or has no ambition to travel".

So far, so good. But just when you think we are going to explore the cultural consequences of this model of musical exchange, we cut to a discussion of rap as the foreign at home, the reception of foreign music by Hollywood, and a debate about authenticity by way of Arabian pop and Congolese soukous. There is more: European surrealism, radio technology and Cuban son, Colombian film, and Cuban youth culture.

Writing well about music is hard. Writing well and exploring music, sociologically and politically, is even harder. Given that Brennan has set out such an extravagant set of claims, the form of Secular Devotion and much of its prose does not rise to the challenge.

David Goldblatt's history of football, 'The Ball is Round', is published by Penguin

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